A Dutchman’s Hearth and Soul [Pieter de Hooch at Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford]

The Washington Post, Feb. 7, 1999, p. G6.

“A Dutchman’s Hearth and Soul: In Hartford, Conn., 17th-Century Painter Pieter de Hooch Steps Out of Vermeer’s Shadow,” The Washington Post, February 07, 1999, p. G 6.

By Jason Edward Kaufman

HARTFORD, Conn. There are no paintings by Johannes Vermeer in Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, yet his name is constantly on the lips of visitors to “Pieter de Hooch, 1629-1684,” the first survey of Vermeer’s less renowned townsman and contemporary.

It is the sort of exhibition that offers many pleasures. De Hooch delivers what we love about painting in Holland’s Golden Age: quaint courtyards and facades of old brick houses, quiet domestic scenes in sparsely appointed bourgeois interiors, and for the astute observer, subtle statements about morality and correct behavior.

Peter Sutton, the Atheneum’s director, organized this survey in association with the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, where it broke attendance records last fall. The Atheneum is the only U.S. venue, but based on the strength of early attendance the exhibit has been extended two weeks, until March 14.

Concisely fitted into two large rooms, it brings together some 40 of the artist’s 167 known works, and, echoing the Vermeer blockbuster at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, it arrays them in chronological order, enabling the viewer to follow the artist’s development.

As with Vermeer, only a few details are known of de Hooch’s life. He was born in Rotterdam in 1629 to a bricklayer and a midwife, and by his mid-twenties had settled in Delft. There he married a local painter’s sister with whom he would father seven children, two of whom died in infancy. His youthful works are murky tavern scenes, so-called “merry companies” of drinking, smoking, card-playing soldiers and prostitutes that were a staple of mid-17th-century Dutch painting, and may reflect the artist’s own lowlife milieu.

In Delft he began to paint more genteel subjects, mostly domestic interiors, in an increasingly refined and naturalistic style. His principal patron seems to have been a linen merchant who acquired at least 11 of his pictures before going bankrupt and fleeing to New Amsterdam (he gained title to the island of Tinicum near Philadelphia). In search of new opportunities, de Hooch moved to Amsterdam, where he lived in the poor section outside the city walls but painted group portraits of wealthy middle-class families as well as scenes in stylish homes and views inside the new town hall. His last 12 years are a blank, but a record of his death at age 54 notes his address as the city’s insane asylum. The nature of his disorder and the length of his hospitalization remain unspecified, but his declining health seems to have affected his skills. Sutton excludes most of the later, less distinguished period.

Comparisons with Vermeer are inevitable. Clearly they knew each other’s work, but the precise nature of their relationship remains conjectural. It was long assumed that de Hooch, who was three years Vermeer’s senior, was indebted to his more renowned colleague. But Sutton says it was de Hooch who, at least briefly, was the “true innovator, creating a new type of genre painting with unprecedented spatial order and naturalism. Nothing in Vermeer’s art suggests he preceded de Hooch in exploring their shared interests.”

In fact, Sutton cites paintings by de Hooch as a likely source for signature works by Vermeer, such as the “Woman Holding a Balance” in the National Gallery and “The Love Letter” in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

It was de Hooch’s illusionistic integration of figures within a cogent space that was a lesson Vermeer seized upon and improved. The National Gallery’s Arthur Wheelock, organizer of the Vermeer retrospective, says, “The concentration of the action in a corner of a spacious room is a compositional schema borrowed directly from de Hooch.”

But whereas Vermeer’s figures are brought forward in the composition and are extremely naturalistic, often with considerable sensitivity to their psychological states, de Hooch’s figures are stiffer, their postures less natural and the complexity of their emotional lives less vividly examined.

Also, whereas Vermeer dealt with expansive ideas by making allegorical allusions to the Last Judgment, vanitas, faith and other themes, de Hooch preferred less grave subjects, focusing on home and hearth. Sutton adds the interesting proposition that the woman and child who appear in so many of de Hooch’s works are likely the artist’s own wife and son, and the familiar rooms probably those of his own house.

The historian Simon Schama has noted that pictures such as these, which portray tender child-rearing, constitute “the first sustained image of parental love that European art has shown us,” and de Hooch was the theme’s greatest exemplar.

A wonderful device of his was the open door or window that reveals a deep space beyond. De Hooch loves to take the eye down corridors and through doors, often proceeding outdoors, perhaps across a canal to another building with even more windows. Proust, in “Swann’s Way,” refers to the device as a metaphor for emotional journeys, “as in these 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.”

One of the most excellent passages of painting in the show is a doorway such as this, its trompe-l’oeil illusion so powerful that the foreground figures–a mother with an infant on her lap and a child carrying a little dog–appear incidental to the real protagonist: the separately lit adjoining space in which silvery daylight floods in through leaded glass, washing over the plaster wall and casting a scintillating sheet over the varnished surface of a family portrait. All the elements come together to evoke a unified presence that is unambiguous and utterly persuasive.

These are visually captivating pictures, a feast for the eyes, but moreover they are filled with objects and events that often have an easily overlooked moral significance: A child’s top lying on the floor refers to the consequences of neglecting one’s children; a vine alludes to marital fidelity and devotion to family; and of course, a broom is an emblem of the Dutch mania for cleanliness, order and neatness–habits linked with purity of the soul.

“Pieter de Hooch” will be at the Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford, through March 14. The museum is open daily 10-5, except Mondays, and until 8 p.m. the evening of March 4. Admission is $ 10 for adults. For further information call 860-278-2670.

Little-known treats from Holland’s Golden Age: “A Woman Drinking With Two Men, and a Serving Woman.” “A Courtyard in Delft” uses a common de Hooch device of looking through a doorway or window to a space beyond. “A Woman Nursing an Infant” depicts a common theme in de Hooch’s work.

Jason Edward Kaufman

“A Dutchman’s Hearth and Soul: In Hartford, Conn., 17th-Century Painter Pieter de Hooch Steps Out of Vermeer’s Shadow,” The Washington Post, February 07, 1999, p. G 6.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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