Values, Shmalues

Don’t mistake Pieter de Hooch for a stodgy moralist.

“Pieter de Hooch, 1629-1684”

Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Conn.

Dec. 18, 1998-Feb. 28, 1999

The major premise of the Pieter de Hooch retrospective in Hartford, Conn., incredibly the first show ever to be devoted to this Dutch master, is that de Hooch is the supreme painter of Dutch domesticity. “Most of his art expresses a clear moral point of view,” writes Peter Sutton, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum and the world’s leading authority on de Hooch, “above all of the values of patriarchal Dutch society and their celebration of domestic virtue.” Sutton quotes liberally from the “flood” of domestic conduct books of the period, including some rhymed couplets from the wildly popular manual of Jacob Cats, such as (in my translation): “A man obeys the law of the land; a woman obeys the will of her man.” Pictures such as A Woman Nursing an Infant With a Child(circa 1658-60) are, in Sutton’s view, compendiums of family values. The little girl feeding the dog is practicing for the nurturing rituals of motherhood. The birdcage above the contented mother’s head may well symbolize, Sutton suggests, the “sweet slavery of marital love” (another proverb from Cats).

Little is known of his life, early or late, and his pictures (37 in the Wadsworth show, carefully culled from a total of perhaps 170) are the sole evidence of his preoccupations. Born in 1629 in Rotterdam, de Hooch apprenticed himself to a Haarlem landscapist called Nicolaes Berchem before making his way to Delft around 1652. There he married and had several children before changing his base of operations to the burgeoning city of Amsterdam, where he died in 1684.

De Hooch’s paintings can be easily divided in subject and style among his three geographical locales, as his own life ascended from working class to middle class to high bourgeois. In Haarlem, he painted shadowy lowlife scenes of soldiers and barmaids carousing in vaguely rendered brothels and dives. In Delft, his art snapped suddenly into focus, with a few figures deployed in sunlit interiors or courtyards, their architectural surroundings meticulously evoked with dazzling tricks of perspective. In Amsterdam, his palette darkened; marble floors replaced earthenware tiles, satin supplanted homespun, and a dream–it cannot have been more than that for de Hooch–of luxury reigned.

The short stay in Delft resulted in de Hooch’s greatest paintings, and these dominate the Hartford show. It was in Delft that de Hooch mastered the expressive balance of architectural setting and human character, as in his ambitious A Family in a Courtyard (circa 1657-60). Visible through the arched entrance of the Hartford installation, the picture displays many of de Hooch’s signature details: the ubiquitous dogs, the bewilderingly complex perspective and, above all, the recession down a corridor, often with a door ajar in the distance. In Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust compared the little phrase of the composer Vinteuil, the “national anthem” of Swann’s love for Odette, to one of “those interiors by Pieter de Hooch which are deepened by the narrow frame of a half-opened door, in the far distance, of a different color, velvety with the radiance of some intervening light.”

“Velvety radiance” actually sounds more like Jan Vermeer (Swann’s obsession) than de Hooch, and the precise relationship between the two painters still elude scholars. No document links them, but shared motifs (a woman weighing gold, a trompe l’oeil curtain drawn just so) in their paintings–especially from a magic moment around 1658–suggest an intimacy akin to such famous partnerships as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, or Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Current critical consensus is that de Hooch was the innovator, Vermeer the perfecter, while current taste (as evidenced by the overwhelming attendance at the Vermeer show in Washington three years ago) prefers Vermeer. De Hooch cannot match the sheer glamour of Vermeer, the meditative inwardness of Vermeer’s women, the pearly mystery of their moods as they mull over love letters or listen to music.

If we compare the two painters on Vermeer’s terms–mystery, glamour, serenity, simplicity of design–de Hooch is the inevitable loser. If we accept the view of de Hooch advanced by the Hartford show and catalog, as a propagandist for Dutch family values, it’s hard to explain the peculiar hold that his paintings have, or ought to have, on us. I think the Hartford show overemphasizes de Hooch’s praise of domesticity–clean tiles and contented mothers–while underplaying his alienation.

Here’s another way to look at de Hooch’s pictures: Where Vermeer is serene and transcendent, de Hooch is edgy and ill at ease. De Hooch, in marked contrast to Vermeer, is a painter of this world, with all its social precariousness and unavoidable melancholy. Vermeer’s single shaft of luminosity from window or door evokes an otherworldly reality. De Hooch deploys several sources of light casting shadows every which way. His windows and doors relieve the claustrophobia of his interiors, but they imply no other realm. The enigmatic figure with his back turned to us that we see down so many of de Hooch’s recessions may suggest an escape route, but there’s no promise that where he’s headed is any different from here.

Once we’re tuned to this unsettling frequency in de Hooch’s work, we notice how many hints of confinement and escape there are in his work. All those birdcages may imply something less comforting than love’s “sweet slavery.” The dogs prowling around, stand-ins perhaps for the observant artist, give an unruliness to family gatherings. Affectionately painted servants in de Hooch’s paintings, such as the housemaid in Woman and Child in an Interior (circa 1658) handing a mug of beer to an elegantly clad little boy, suggest an affinity with the lower orders of society. During his Amsterdam period, de Hooch includes black servants and entertainers in his festive gatherings–another indication of his sympathy for people on the margins of society.

De Hooch is at his most appealing when he is poking fun at the Dutch mania for cleanliness. In the wonderful A Woman Drinking with Two Men and a Serving Woman(circa 1658), carousers from his drab Rotterdam pictures have entered the finely nuanced space of his Delft interiors. A slim-waisted woman, closely resembling the figure down the corridor in A Courtyard in Delft, raises her cup to two men, one of whom pretends to play a fiddle with two pipes. Another lovingly rendered serving woman stands by the mantle, above which hangs a painting of the traditional theme of the education of the Virgin. Not only does de Hooch play with two ways–secular and sacred–of “educating virgins,” but he deliberately desecrates, with bits of a smashed pipe and rolling paper, that immaculate expanse of floor.

After his move to Amsterdam, de Hooch painted ever more luxurious interiors, probably as bait for wealthy patrons. He set several pictures in the palatial Amsterdam Town Hall, completed in 1665 and regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. These pictures–including one depicting a party held, incongruously, in one of the Town Hall chambers–have a dreamlike aura. De Hooch’s Amsterdam addresses were in the poor outskirts of the city, outside the town gates, and the Town Hall may have been the only swanky interior he had access to. At a time when Holland was experiencing a surfeit of prosperity–what Simon Schama calls its “embarrassment of riches”–de Hooch was apparently left out in the cold. The last 12 years of his life are a blank. All we know is that Pieter de Hooch, one of the masters of Dutch painting, was buried in the cemetery in Amsterdam, his body having been carried directly from the dolhuys, the house for the insane.