Dated by Sutton c. 1670-4, when the artist had been established in Amsterdam for about a decade. Although never rich, and perhaps especially not so at this time granted the current economic circumstances of Dutch Republic, de Hooch continued to depict and receive commissions from the wealthy merchants of Amsterdam, (see lot 23). Sutton compares the present lot with the rich bourgeois or patriciate interiors in the museums at Leipzig and Los Angeles (his nos. 87 and 88) and with the picture offered at Sotheby's, 30 June 1971, lot 12 (his no. 90), all dated by him c. 1668-72. He compares the costume worn by the gentleman with that in the picture formerly in the Errera collection of 1670 (his no. 95).
The present lot shows the sustained brilliance of de Hooch's art at about the middle of his activity in Amsterdam. There - after his departure from Delft - his interest in three-dimensional effects, his ability to render the texture of surfaces and to express the quiet poetry of often simple domestic circumstances retained the interest of Johannes Vermeer. Contrary to received opinion, the catalogue of the recent exhibition Johannes Vermeer, National Gallery of Art, Washington, and Royal Cabinet of Pictures, Mauritshuis, The Hague, 1995, under no. 18, stated that Vermeer in the 1660s 'would have continued to be inspired by de Hooch's themes, as well as his compositional constructions ...', (see also p. 143, under no. 10), an assertion which Sutton has recently partially refuted.
The subject of the present lot depends on the letter; the picture thus forms part of a special aspect of portraiture and genre in the Golden Age, early manifested by Thomas de Keyser's Portrait of Constantÿn Huygens and his Clerk(?) in the National Gallery, London, and early the pivotal key in Rembrandt's Portraits of Jan Rijksen and his Wife of 1633 in the Royal Collection. Ter Borch seems to have popularized the genre of the letter and the situations it creates c. 1655 (S.J. Gudlaugsson, Gerard Ter Borch, The Hague, 1960, I, no. 115). The present lot is not therefore an early example; but it is notable, none the less, for probably showing a letter being read to one of its recipients. Ludolf de Jongh showed a courier reading a letter to a peasant family in his picture of 1657 at Mainz (see the catalogue of the exhibition, Leselust Niederländische Malerei von Rembrandt bis Vermeer, Frankfurt, 1993, no. 49). But the present lot seems to be one of the few to show a gentleman reading out loud (it is assumed) a letter to his wife(?). De Hooch here concentrates on the woman; he has chosen, unusually it seems, to depict her hearing news conveyed by the letter; the artist's tact and subtlety are such that he leaves the viewer to imagine and dwell on what her sentiments might be.
Sutton has shown that the picture of the Nativity over the fireplace is based on C. Bloemaert's print of 1625 after Abraham Bloemaert's picture in the Herzog Anton-Ulrich Museum, Brunswick.
Peter Sutton, curator of the exhibition, Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684), which will take place in 1998-9 at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, has requested the loan of this picture to the exhibition.