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Art: Pieter de Hooch: Visionary Homebody

7 minute read
Robert Hughes

Some artists get their museum retrospectives at 35, some at 60, most never. Pieter de Hooch is having his at 370, and it was worth waiting for. The display of 41 of De Hooch’s paintings at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. (through March 14), is his first exhibition. Organized by Peter Sutton, the Atheneum’s director, who wrote the De Hooch catalogue raisonnee back in 1980, it is an absolute delight. Unless you’ve seen it, you’ve hardly seen De Hooch at all.

Next only to Vermeer, De Hooch (rhymes with broke, not pooch) was the greatest Dutch genre artist of the 17th century. Very little is known about his life. He was born in Rotterdam in 1629. He learned painting by apprenticeship there, probably to Nicolaes Berchem. By 1655 his name shows up on the rolls of the artists’ guild in Delft. There he must have known the slightly younger Johannes Vermeer. Five years later, he was working in Amsterdam. He married and had seven children. None of his letters survive, and no drawings either. In 1684 he died in a madhouse. Whatever his affliction may have been, it left no interpretable mark on his work. Nothing is known about his personality, and it doesn’t matter. And that’s about it, except for the fact that his critical fortunes rose steeply in the 19th century–and the much odder fact that until now, no museum in or out of Holland has ever bothered to mount a show of his work, even though his pictures have been eagerly sought by collectors the world over.

He was a visionary homebody, less mysterious and abstract than Vermeer but vastly more refined than his predecessors, those Dutch painters of grinning drunks, gamblers and bottom pinchers in brown taverns. De Hooch worked in this mode for a while, but his maturity as an artist began with rejecting it. Instead, he focused on home and hearth, sometimes with a bit of boozing–in Holland beer was held to be good even for small children–but always warmly idealized. What he idealized was domesticity and nurture, set in precise constructions of space, bathed in subtle transitions of light.

To the extent that De Hooch made allegories of virtue at all, he certainly didn’t try to shove them down the viewer’s throat. His morality was all sympathy; he wasn’t in any direct way a preacher. But in a time and place that put the strongest emphasis on the idea of the ordered, tranquil family as the basis of a just society, his visions of domesticity had a distinct symbolic point. Disorder, in the real world outside or the formal one inside his paintings, repelled him. Everything in his interiors is swept, garnished. De Hooch epitomizes the Dutch obsession with cleanliness, which at the time was unique in Europe: compared with these frugal bourgeois, 17th century Englishmen, Italians or Spaniards lived like pigs, with the sour reek of sweat always coming from behind the silks and leathers.

Dutch wives and servants were forever sweeping, swabbing, scouring and polishing, re-enacting through drudgery the holiness of Martha in the house of Mary. Practices of hygiene got raised to the level of devotional acts. A marvelous example in De Hooch is A Mother and Child with Its Head in Her Lap, circa 1658-60. The child kneels submissively with her face down. The mother, absorbed in her task, is picking lice from her hair. From this ordinary domestic event, De Hooch creates an extraordinarily tender image of care and even sanctity.

Yet this narrative isn’t the whole of the picture by any means. De Hooch was a master of spatial composition. In his pictures you are never entirely inside or wholly outside. His rooms aren’t closed, artificially lit boxes but part of a continuity between the inner and outer worlds, revealing the truth of both under the benison of natural light. In this painting the rectangles of the brown room with its wide wallboards and alcove bed open backward into stages of increasing light. The window casts a bright lozenge of sun on the worn tiles of the floor beyond. The light slants, giving De Hooch an opportunity to complicate his verticals and horizontals with a diagonal bar of shadow cast by the window transom on the half-open shutter. Some surfaces receive the light directly, others obliquely, thus enabling him to render subtle variations, gleams and sparkles of light on edges and irregularities.

None of this is intrusive, but there is something intense about the discreet effort that has gone into it–analysis raised to poetry. It demands close looking–and gets it, from the little dog in the foreground with its back to us, transfixed by the sight. And things are complicated a little further by a second window, on the right, that lights up the mother and child and leaves a brilliant splash of gold on the brass bed warmer hanging above the mother’s head, like a displaced halo.

Until De Hooch goes to Amsterdam, the work is all plain, in surface, substance and gesture. There’s scarcely a hint of theatricality in the way his Delft models look. The figures in A Woman Drinking with Two Men, and a Serving Woman, circa 1658, are circumspect and static. True, the man on the left seems to be mimicking a violin player with two clay pipes, but it would be hard to imagine a more decorous drinking party, and the glass of wine the woman raises is more like a chalice than an attribute of Bacchus, let alone Venus. Their presence is vivid, but it’s subordinated to the even stronger formal matrix of the painting, sandwiched between the perspective run of the ceiling beams and the imperious grid of the tiled floor. Everything in De Hooch’s paintings, including the sometimes rather wooden figures, is a space marker. The most reliably expressive creatures there are the dogs.

But how much of a realist was he? In De Hooch’s world every brick is in place–he was, as a matter of fact, the son of a master bricklayer–but that place may not have been in a real structure. The show contains two paintings of the “same” scene, a courtyard in Delft, from 1658, featuring a brick archway with an inscribed tablet and a round window above it, and a little arbor to the right. Except that in the second version the arbor isn’t an arbor but a shed; and the slice of street seen through the archway is different; and the pattern of paving on the ground is different too. It’s like a child’s puzzle: “What’s wrong with the second picture?” Which bit of Delft is invented? The first or the second or (just as likely) both?

De Hooch’s painting changed after his move to Amsterdam. He was working for a richer and posher clientele–not that they made him rich. The plain stuff of his interiors gives way to more sumptuous surfaces: marble, Turkish carpets and gilded walls of embossed leather, all of which he painted with virtuosity. The people are dressed to the nines. The idea that De Hooch sold out to them, and to their way of life, thus sending his art into decadence, was widespread once. It isn’t borne out by the pictures themselves. A strangely moody image from 1677, of a couple eating oysters in a shadowed courtyard while a black servant plays the viola, is one of the best of all his paintings. But the earlier, inward, reflective De Hoochs seem closer to his own life, and so they affect us more.

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