David Gelber

He Had a Light Touch

Pieter de Hooch in Delft: From the Shadow of Vermeer

By

W Books 223pp £30 order from our bookshop

The most famous interior in Delft is not one of those sunbathed parlours, filled with globes, paintings, chandeliers and virginals, half-seen in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, but a dusky whitewashed passageway in the Prinsenhof, formerly a monastery, later a palace and now home to the city’s municipal museum. There, a small frame at hip level guides the eye to two dimples in the wall, which, were it not for the plaque above, might be dismissed as scars from a minor accident during a furniture move. But here was no mishap. The two holes stand as a memorial to the father of the Dutch nation, William of Orange, who was gunned down on this spot by a fanatical Catholic in 1584.

The Prinsenhof is host to a new exhibition of paintings by Pieter de Hooch, whose interior scenes bear a striking resemblance to those of Vermeer, his acquaintance and colleague in Delft’s Guild of St Luke. De Hooch was born in Rotterdam in 1629, but took up residence in Delft in the 1650s, his most fruitful period, before relocating to Amsterdam the following decade. He has long been eclipsed by Vermeer, though his interiors are arguably more ambitious. ‘We do not place the paintings by this master in the first rank,’ wrote the 18th-century French dealer Alexandre-Joseph Paillet. This is the first solo exhibition of his work for twenty years, and only the second ever.

Not one of de Hooch’s paintings remains in Delft, meaning that this exhibition has had to be created from scratch. It and the accompanying catalogue, which surveys de Hooch’s life, artistry and legacy, are a marvel of industry and intelligence. The long-awaited reunification of de Hooch’s works has prompted a major study of his technique, using imaging technology and pigment analysis. The findings are set out in forensic detail by Anna Krekeler in one of six catalogue essays.

By the middle of the 17th century, Amsterdam had established its pre-eminence within the United Provinces of the Netherlands, but Delft, home to a chamber of the Dutch East India Company and a flourishing ceramics industry, was thriving too. Painters such as Carel Fabritius, Emanuel de Witte and de Hooch himself were drawn to the city, where they joined such native artists as Vermeer and Hendrick van der Burch, whose sister de Hooch married. While it might not have matched Amsterdam in influence, Delft played a unique part in the national consciousness. It was the last resting place of William of Orange, whose stately tomb in the Nieuwe Kerk became a pilgrimage site. With its network of canals, eastern trading links, school of painting and starring role in the birth of the republic, it was easy to imagine Delft as a new Venice. The exhibition opens with a view of the city, captured from within an imaginary Italianate loggia, by Daniël Vosmaer and a panorama by Hendrick Vroom showing the city ringed by water, a gondola front and centre.

De Hooch’s works were on a more intimate scale than these townscapes, foregrounding the domestic rather than the monumental. Even so, the symbols of the city, most notably the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk – the St Mark’s of Delft – often loiter at the back of the courtyard views that, along with his interiors, became his calling card. In this small, easily traversable country, these landmarks would have been familiar beyond Delft, particularly given their associations with Dutch independence. They were also a reminder that the Dutch were God’s elect, a popular belief in the 17th century. In a few paintings, such as The Colf Players, de Hooch added in the city’s other great gift to the country and the world beyond: Delftware tiles. This, then, was local art with a national tinge. Little is known, Jaap van der Veen explains in a biographical sketch of the artist, about de Hooch’s clients. But it is telling that the one major patron who has been identified during his Delft years, the merchant Justus de la Grange, was a native of Leiden rather than Delft itself.

In the 1650s, the Netherlands had only recently emerged from its eighty-year war with Spain. Fittingly, an air of peace and stillness characterises de Hooch’s Delft paintings, even when they portray potentially divisive scenarios, such as card games. De Hooch’s early works were boisterous drinking scenes, set in semi-elaborated guardrooms, of the kind common enough in early 17th-century Dutch painting. As the country weaned itself off war, however, these went out of fashion. Anita Jansen suggests that, once in Delft, de Hooch was set on a new path by the church painter Hendrick van Vliet, who helped him master internal perspective.

Whatever the inspiration, by the mid-1650s he had developed a sophisticated handling of architectural space quite absent in his earlier work. Not only could he manage through-views from one room to another, some of them with complex features such as internal steps, but he was also confident enough to depict imperfections in his arrangements. In A Dutch Courtyard, for instance, the brick ground rises and sinks, showing the effects of subsidence, while in The Courtyard of a House in Delft, a weathered, weed-plagued wall slants precariously inward. Most accomplished of all was his treatment of the effects of natural light indoors, exemplified in Cardplayers in a Sunlit Room. Sunshine pours into an antechamber through high windows and an open door, bleaching the chequerboard floor and falling on a black-coated man at the table. The hairs on the back of his head shimmer in the brightness, but his torso is reduced to a silhouette. The viewer, dazzled by the sunburst, cannot tell where his jacket ends and his breeches begin.

Along with contrasting light and dark effects, de Hooch’s mature paintings contain other common elements: muted grounds with splashes of colour; finely wrought architectural detail; a single figure – often a woman – or small group acting as a focal point. The settings are usually modest – pantries, bedrooms, backyards, vegetable patches – and uncluttered, though following de Hooch’s move to Amsterdam, his interiors grew more lavish. The subject matters are eminently diurnal: men smoking pipes, boys playing games, women delousing their children, sweeping floors and making beds (in fact, the women always seem to be cleaning and tidying, even when a room looks spick and span). Occasionally, de Hooch created more formal family portraits on commission. But in all these works, it is the environment, rather than the individuals subsisting within it, that draws the viewer in.

Indeed, as de Hooch’s architectural ensembles grew more intricate, the humans within them became increasingly formulaic. The same anonymous stock figures – a woman with head tilted downwards being a particular favourite – recur, often wearing identical clothes. Frequently, they avert their eyes, not just from the viewer but from each other as well. Even in works designed to suggest harmony and affection, such as Portrait of a Family Playing Music, a certain distance, even woodenness, prevails. While de Hooch might have been Vermeer’s equal in the ordering of internal space, his work lacks the element of intrigue and human chemistry.

The precise relationship between these two Delft artists is obscure, and the essays are judiciously cautious in addressing this subject. The one major claim is that de Hooch’s Woman Weighing Gold and Silver Coins served as the model for Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance, and not, as has been argued, vice versa. X-ray analysis reveals that a male figure formed part of de Hooch’s original composition, making it unlikely he was copying Vermeer. The authors steer clear of speculation about symbolism in de Hooch’s paintings. Religion, too, is barely mentioned, though Protestantism was central to Dutch identity in the 17th century. Could it be the light of the Lord falling on all those figures scrubbing, folding and mopping? As the saying goes, cleanliness is next to godliness.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter