The Light at the Back of a Sequence of Rooms

Peter Campbell

  • Pieter De Hooch 1629-84 by Peter Sutton
    Yale, 183 pp, £30.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 300 07757 2
  • On Reflection by Jonathan Miller
    National Gallery, 224 pp, £25.00, September 1998, ISBN 1 85709 236 8

Some good places for looking at pictures retain the feel of the private houses they once were (the Phillips Collection in Washington, or Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge), but there are no rules – re-hangings at the Tate gave new life to pictures which seemed to have lost heart, just by putting them in the right company. In places where they are happy, you can look at paintings you know and still have the sense that it is a first encounter. But mechanical reproduction has seen to it that real first encounters are now gifts which come half-unwrapped. The best reason for going to exhibitions is to see what cannot be reproduced. The job of the curator is to contrive the kinds of meeting in which pictures can say what they have to say. It is not easy, as two exhibitions currently running in London bear out, and requires a measure of tact.

Poor Pieter de Hooch was taken for burial from the Amsterdam madhouse in 1684. He was 55 years old. We know that fact and a handful of others – the dates of a few family events, his membership of the painters’ guild and his failure to come up with the full membership fee – from official records. We know, too, that he was established in Delft when excellent painters – Vermeer, De Witte, Fabritius and Hoogstraten – were among its citizens and that he moved to Amsterdam around 1660 when it was at the height of its prosperity, although little of that prosperity appears to have rubbed off on him.

The work, of course, supplies evidence of its own. The resemblance of some of the Delft paintings to pictures by de Hooch’s younger contemporary Vermeer was the result of borrowing (if it was borrowing at all) by the latter. De Hooch was an inventor and a recorder. In his accounts of town architecture, clothes and furniture, and of people going quietly or convivially about their business, one can track pictorial innovations and changes in taste and prosperity. How far they illustrate a change in his own taste, in public taste, or in the prosperity of the country at large is hard to guess – the pictures can be used to illustrate all of those – but the temptation to believe that some of his Delft interiors show what daily life was really like is very great. Set beside them, Vermeer’s paintings look staged. No matter how natural the girl pouring milk or the woman making lace may seem, the perfection of the surface, the exquisitely precise placing of the figure – so balanced, so quiet – betrays an organising hand. De Hooch, who never achieved that degree of control, has left more of the smell of reality.

He seems to have had a gift for paying attention to the modulation of light by clouds, surfaces and architecture. You not only know how it was in the rooms he painted, you know the weather outside. There are two paintings of the same room – The Bedroom from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and A Mother and Child with Its Head in Her Lap. from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. In the former, chill, diffused light from a cloudy sky drifts into the room. In the latter, bright, although not, one guesses, very warm sunshine – it is as precise as that – casts well-formed shadows. His great strength lay in tonal painting and in oblique, slightly disjunctive compositions, where the centre of interest and the painting’s centre of gravity are in tension. He had other skills, too. He used perspective to establish spaces competently, and if his figures are often out of drawing and their faces rather clumsily done, the relationship between one figure and another – particularly between women and children in the Delft interiors – is natural and touching.

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