Where might Vermeer have gone had he never seen the art of Pieter de Hooch?
The Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684), currently on show at the Prinsenhof in Delft, was an innovator who elevated everyday life in his luminous paintings. Andrew Graham-Dixon wonders if he is the next Old Master primed for ‘rediscovery’
You might think that museum curators working with Old Masters would be impervious to the contemporary cult of celebrity. But it seems to me that, just as many modern movies are designed as vehicles for particular stars, many modern exhibitions are planned on the same principle — the difference being that the stars in question are not Brad Pitt but the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt or Vermeer.
When it comes to blockbuster museum shows, such artists have become, so to speak, the usual suspects. Not so long ago, an exhibition devoted to the work of Caravaggio would have been an eagerly awaited rarity. Now they seem to open all the time: I’ve been to at least three in the past couple of years.
Not that I think this phenomenon is a major cause for concern. If the creation of an all-star cast of Old Masters succeeds in bringing the great art of the past to a new audience — an audience bombarded as never before with competing claims for attention in this age of information overload — that is a considerable achievement. And the fact is that museums need people to come to their exhibitions in reasonably large numbers, especially at a time when their funding is squeezed or even under threat.
But there is an undeniable downside to the Old Master cult of celebrity. There is a risk of people getting the idea that museums are places where the main game is sorting the wheat from the chaff, the big names from the also-rans, the stars from the bit players. The result would be a greatly impoverished sense of the true texture of art and its history.
I can think of many fascinating and engaging artists who vitally influenced the development of painting and sculpture in their own time — and who just happen not to be world-famous in our own. It is worth remembering in any case that the judgements of posterity are always open to revision.
In the mid-19th century, Murillo was one of the most celebrated of all the Old Masters, while almost nobody had even heard of Vermeer. Now it is the other way around. Successfully anticipating such swings and roundabouts of taste has always been one of the principal pleasures of the serious art collector. How many supposedly minor Old Masters are awaiting rediscovery?
All of which begins to explain why I hugely enjoyed the latest exhibition at the Prinsenhof in Delft, a show devoted to one of the lesser lights of Dutch painting, Pieter de Hooch. De Hooch was a slightly older contemporary of Vermeer, whom he certainly influenced. Thanks to the tenderness and luminosity of his best pictures — interiors or courtyard scenes in which we see mothers and children together, or groups of people at leisure, playing cards or drinking — he is by no means unknown, especially among aficionados of Dutch art.
Some 50 years ago, while Peter Sutton was writing the first serious book about the artist, I remember my grandfather, who collected Dutch 17th-century pictures, somehow managing to acquire one of de Hooch’s interiors. Nine years old at the time, I was intrigued by the figures, a man and a woman, and amused by the dog, but struck above all by the light streaming in through a casement window.
My grandfather couldn’t believe that he now actually owned a de Hooch: ‘I never thought I’d have a such a thing on my wall! He’s one of the greats, you know.’ For all that, de Hooch is hardly a household name and been honoured with only one exhibition, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1998: hence the subtitle of the Delft show, ‘From the Shadow of Vermeer’.
The exhibition catalogue sheds much new light on de Hooch’s life, which, it seems, cannot have been an easy one. In one fascinating essay, the archival historian Jaap van der Veen reminds us that de Hooch was the son of a bricklayer from Rotterdam — which surely helps to explain the compelling actuality of the walls, often rather dilapidated, which are so prominent in his work — and reveals that, despite his early success as a painter, he never really escaped poverty.
Having left Rotterdam, he settled from the early 1650s until about 1660 in Delft, where he painted his finest works. He then left for the thriving metropolis of Amsterdam, but could only afford a house outside the city walls, living in a network of lanes known principally for its brothels and poisonously odorous tanneries.
Within a few years he had subsided into self-repetition and formula, finally painting a number of not terribly convincing society portraits which may represent the cul-de-sac of his quest for financial salvation.
The final blow to his hopes seems to have been in 1672, the so-called Year of Disaster, when the French invaded Holland and the Dutch saved themselves by opening the dykes and flooding their own country, expelling the invaders but condemning themselves to a decade of economic recession and destroying the market for luxury goods such as paintings. After 1679, the archives go quiet and nothing more is heard of Pieter de Hooch.
‘I suspect that what lies at the heart of de Hooch’s painting is a profound sense of the value of a home and a family’
The subject of the Delft show is, essentially, de Hooch’s period of activity in that city, which had a small population — only around 25,000 — yet enjoyed a brief but extraordinary flowering during the middle years of the 17th century. From the 1640s onwards, a number of remarkable artists chose to settle and work there, including Rembrandt’s hugely gifted pupil Carel Fabritius — killed in the enormous gunpowder store explosion that rocked Delft in 1654 — the painter of church interiors Emanuel de Witte, and the master of misrule Jan Steen.
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At the outset of his career in Delft, de Hooch specialised in so-called ‘guardroom scenes’, painting soldiers carousing with serving wenches in darkened interiors. This was a genre that had flourished during the long years of war with Spain but was losing its popularity by the 1650s.
So the young painter scratched his head and thought of something new: something entirely new, as it turned out, namely a type of painting in which figures are gathered doing nothing in particular, certainly nothing spectacular, in rooms or courtyards where the play of light offers just as much to the eye as the human activity.
Most of the elements in a painting by de Hooch can be traced to other sources — his handling of light and the ingenious perspectives of his tiled floors or brick courtyards are reminiscent of the church interiors painted by de Witte, while the theme of figures in interiors looks back to Jan Steen and many others — but the way in which he combined them was unprecedented.
Houses and their courtyards, in his most compelling pictures, become the setting for a new kind of sacred mystery. A mother sews beside a crib while a dog sniffs the air and a little girl, seen from behind, stands rapt in the sunshine flooding through an open door in another room. A woman delouses a child’s hair as a dog stares into the sunlight coming through a half-open window. A woman holds a child’s hand and another stares into the street from a corridor leading into a spotless courtyard where a broom and bucket, no longer needed, have been left to lie.
What is sometimes forgotten about Dutch art during the 17th century is that Dutch artists — unlike, say, their French, Italian or Spanish counterparts — really were making it up as they went along. Their subjects were not prescribed by the church, nor by any other patrons resembling those of the past: painters in Holland rarely painted for kings or aristocrats. Theirs was a new art for a new kind of state, a mercantile political republic that was the wonder (and dismay) of the rest of Europe; and de Hooch’s work in Delft represents a briefly achieved but brilliant example of that newness.
What might it once have meant, if that is not too crude a question, to those who first saw (and bought) it? I suspect that what lies at the heart of de Hooch’s new form of genre painting is a profound sense of the value of a home and a family — exemplified both by the bond between mother and daughter, a theme to which he often returns, and by the physical fabric of a house itself, painted with such care and sensitivity by this man who was, after all, the son of a bricklayer.
De Hooch himself never built on his own brilliant innovations beyond a certain point, because he left Delft for Amsterdam and, in so doing, seems to have lost his way. But seeing so much of his painting in one place, I was deeply struck by just how much of an influence his art must have exerted on the young Vermeer — who achieved his own maturity just at the moment when de Hooch was at the peak of his powers in Delft, and who clearly took a great deal of inspiration both from de Hooch’s subject matter and from his handling of interior space and light.
I think Vermeer was a more subtle and a much more profound painter, in the sense that he took de Hooch’s quiet and tender domestic themes and transformed them into unforgettable meditations on love, or the sacredness of peace. But what shape might Vermeer’s art have taken had he never seen de Hooch’s work in the first place?
I’m sure it would have been a different one. Not only are the lesser lights of art fascinating in their own right; they often spark the greater lights, allowing them to shine with such brilliance.
Pieter de Hooch in Delft: From the Shadow of Vermeer is at the Museum Prinsenhof Delft until 16 February. Classic Week at Christie’s in New York begins on 20 April