The beauties of the universe are revealed in the paintings of Pieter de Hooch

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

In the early 1660s, Pieter de Hooch was living in an area of what we would now call urban overspill surrounding the commercial boom town of Amsterdam. It wasn’t the best of neighbourhoods. Nearby was a little street nicknamed ‘whorehouse alley’ (het hoerenpad). Tanners plied their trade thereabouts, which involved soaking hides in urine. But smells and sounds are not necessarily recorded in pictures, and in this 17th-century version of affordable housing, De Hooch painted images of utter domestic tranquillity.

One such picture, ‘A Mother’s Duty’ (c.1658–60), is among the star exhibits in a delightful little exhibition of De Hooch’s work at the Museum Prinsenhof, Delft. Admittedly, the alternative name, ‘A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair’, strikes a more utilitarian note. But the painting is not really about the woman and the child — who may well be De Hooch’s wife, Jannetje, and one of their children — and their chore.

The principle subject is light. Or rather, as the French critic Théophile Thoré noted a century and a half ago, ‘three successive planes of different light’. The mother and child are in a shadowy inner room, with a simple bed built into one wall. Beyond that we can see into another small space, from which a half-open door leads into the sunny day outside. The air might have been laden with tannery stench, but it looks seraphically calm.

De Hooch distinguishes brilliantly between the soft shadows dappling the outer door, and the way the light gleams on varnished inner woodwork. Just inside the door there is a pool of sunlight on the floor, and elsewhere an occasional sparkle on the raised edge of one of the red tiles. It is almost like a sermon, the theme of which is that the beauties of the universe can be observed just as well in a low-rent area as in an expensive one — possibly better.

You feel no one has ever looked so closely at the surfaces, textures and optical qualities of the humble objects that surround us in everyday life — except, that is, for Johannes Vermeer. De Hooch (1629–after 84) and Vermeer (1632–75) were not only contemporaries, for a time they worked in the same town — Delft, where De Hooch was based before he moved to Amsterdam — and on closely parallel tracks. Indeed, art historically they form one of those pairs — Giorgione and Titian, Braque and Picasso — who worked, as Braque famously put it, ‘like mountain-climbers roped together’.

The difference is that we know nothing of how De Hooch and Vermeer thought about what they were doing or the conversations they might have had. As is the case with most Dutch artists of the 17th century, our knowledge of them is little more than the archival skeleton of births, marriages, debts and inheritances. There isn’t even a document that proves they ever met each other. But commendable scholarly caution can tip over into wilful blindness.

You have only to glance at De Hooch’s ‘Woman Weighing Gold’ (c.1664) to know that it was painted by an artist who was working in a way extremely close to that of Vermeer. For one thing, in composition, treatment and mood, it is almost a twin to Vermeer’s ‘Woman with a Balance’ (c.1664). But which came first?

Undoubtedly, Vermeer was the more powerful painter. There was a concision and intensity that makes his pictures pop off the wall if you run your eye along a row of works by him and his contemporaries. But that doesn’t mean he came up with all the ideas. In this case, it seems that De Hooch was the originator, because his little interior started out with two figures, one of whom he had second thoughts about. So it looks as if he worked out the composition and Vermeer borrowed it.

De Hooch has tended to be overshadowed by Vermeer since the 19th century, when the latter emerged from the scrum of Dutch ‘little masters’ to become one of the superstars of art. When his ‘Girl with a Pearl’ was shown in Tokyo a few years ago, 750,000 queued up to see it. De Hooch will never match that pulling power, and it’s true to say that his art is of a lower wattage. On the other hand, when he is on top form, in a painting such as the National Gallery’s ‘Courtyard of a House in Delft’, for example, the gap is very small.

For a few years in the late 1650s and early 1660s De Hooch, too, could produce mesmerisingly poetic paintings. And there is reason to believe that he was quite often the initiator. Vermeer, for example, painted only two townscapes (at least, of which we know). But, as this exhibition makes clear, De Hooch did quantities of them. In fact, he invented a novel genre of backyard landscapes.

An essay in the catalogue by Wim Weve, sets out meticulous topographical research and demonstrates that De Hooch was observing real buildings and places in Delft from a particular vantage point. One of the fascinations of this exhibition is that the venerable building in which it is shown, the Prinsenhof, is only a few doors away from this spot, which may well have been De Hooch’s house and studio. The floors you stand on are very like those in the interiors.

But rather than paint a specific view in his courtyard scenes, De Hooch collaged together a church tower, say, with a garden gate and a house from somewhere slightly different. Then he put people in this setting. And the people, you sense, were not what he was most interested in. The highlight of the marvellous ‘Woman and Child in a Bleaching Ground’ (c.1657–58) is not the figures, or even the Oude Kerk looming in the background, but a battered brick wall, with flaking plaster. It is not too much to say this is a portrait of this wall, every brick and scrap of mortar individualised (De Hooch’s father was a bricklayer, which gave him a family interest in masonry).

The fact that Delft was a centre of cutting-edge optical examination of the world through microscopes and telescopes — the pioneer of microbiology, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, was another neighbour — must be a clue to the work of Vermeer and De Hooch. It helps to explain why both painters examined their everyday surroundings with such precision and, you can’t help feeling, a sense of wonder.

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