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.

De Hooch’s trademark is the view into the next room. A door opens into a room, you look through that room to another door or window opening into a yard or street. Tiles lead you from one space to another, stepping out distances and picking up reflections. The brightest part of the picture is often the most distant thing shown. The eye automatically scans for figures, and finds them, but is drawn back to the bright space in the distance (which may, in its turn, be occupied by another, much smaller figure – a child in the yard, a woman leaning on an open door across the way). A few of the rooms in the later pictures are so dim that you have to peer to see the main figures. These apartments are also larger and more elaborately furnished; the view out to a street offers an escape. In the more homely interiors, light comes as a kind of secular benediction. The artefacts of ordered, frugal domesticity – hard, polished surfaces and stiff clothes – are touched by it, as they might be in a devotional picture by the presence of an illuminating angel.

These interiors, as far as pictures can, create something close to what you would see were there a real opening in the wall and a bit of old Delft behind it. The catalogue points out that the correct viewing distance for some of the early paintings is only two feet or so – which reminds you that Delft was the home of Carel Fabritius, who painted a strangely distorted view of the city that seems to have been part of a perspective peep-show, and of Samuel van Hoogstraten, whose perspective box is a peep-show in its own right. It can still be peered into at the National Gallery (at the moment it is part of Jonathan Miller’s exhibition), which also houses the Fabritius picture.

Perhaps it is because they deal so magically with light and space that de Hooch’s pictures make you preternaturally aware of the relationship between flat picture and depicted light and real space and real light. It may be an indication of the delicacy of this relationship that, although, like Vermeer, he often includes pictures of pictures (typically sly glosses on subject-matter: a Ganymede, a blindfold Cupid but sometimes a landscape, a seascape or a map), none that I can find shows pictures of the sort he actually painted. Perhaps to include one would have been to spoil the illusion. His are delicately balanced paintings which ask for a little respect.

De Hooch’s pictures – indeed all pictures of the hole-in-the-wall kind – can be much helped or humiliated by the light which shines on them and the frames and spaces that surround them. Three pictures in this exhibition from American collections are complemented by dark wooden frames (the Getty one is particularly handsome) which insulate the picture and allow the rectangle of distant door or window its full value. A picture from the Hermitage, on the other hand, is bullied by gilding, burnished to a brightness which would do credit to the Lord Mayor’s coach. As important (but harder to make allowances for – you can almost strip a picture of its frame mentally) is the ambient light Those who remember dim winter hours in the Dulwich Gallery in the days before Soane’s skylights were bordered with fluorescent units know that there were times when some pictures were almost invisible – if it got too dark they just closed the place up. Yet the process of letting the dark-adapted eye make what it could of a crepuscular Rubens or Poussin was an education. Some pictures looked even better in the shade – it is not only complexions which glow in candlelight. And all pictures are better understood if you have seen what happens to them as the light fades and brightens. The refurbishment to the gallery which is to begin when the current exhibition is over will, we are told, augment daylight discreetly; I wait with interest to see if it allows light levels to rise and fall with changing weather.

The rooms being used for the de Hooch exhibition have had their natural lighting blanked out. Maybe there are curatorial reasons for this. The result is that pictures which are remarkable accounts of natural light penetrating rooms are seen in what much gallery architecture now provides – a kind of interrogation chamber. Although the top lighting of the kind 19th-century galleries afforded can be admirable, letting the old Soane system have its way would not necessarily have suited these pictures. They probably look best against walls which, like those in the pictures themselves, shade from brighter to dimmer. I have never seen the National Gallery’s Dutch paintings look better than they did when, many years ago, they were temporarily displayed in sidelit basement rooms which had some of the qualities of the rooms painted by 17th-century Dutch artists like Vermeer and, indeed, de Hooch.

If you go to Dulwich, and take the catalogue off to read by the tea tent you are struck by the redundancy of the plentiful colour reproductions: you have, after all, recently seen the pictures and can easily return to them. Curiously, it is almost as if the author agreed, for each entry begins with a paragraph of description which, with the illustration beside it, adds nothing. (‘A small dog and a chair with pillow occupy the right foreground.’ Well, yes, so they do.) Yet were there no illustrations, these descriptive inventories would be a useful structure on which to hang information – the statue we see on the cupboard is of Mercury, the rug on the table is a Transylvanian prayer rug, the clubs the children hold are for playing colf (which was exported to Scotland and became golf) and so on. The catalogue has much interesting information about de Hooch, Dutch society, and the technicalities of picture-making. The colour plates (they are, to be fair, as good as most, it is just that de Hooch turns out to be a very difficult subject) and the redundant descriptions should not be allowed to put one off reading it.

All the economic reasons for not producing black and white pocket catalogues are obvious, and I own and pore over illustrated art books. But I am also sure that paintings sometimes need to be defended from apparatus which seems to celebrate them, but really confuses the relationship which matters most – that between the picture on the wall and the person looking at it. It is partly just a matter of timing. It is much more satisfying to become aware of a puzzle and have it resolved than to know too soon what the puzzle is. For example, de Hooch painted a rather grand picture of a couple walking in the Amsterdam Town Hall. Sunlight enters through concealed openings on the right of the picture. An archway leads to a room – oddly domestic in the circumstances – in which the light comes not from the right, but from the left. It is one of those bright, distant vistas which are unmistakably his. Except in this case it is not his work at all. A 19th-century restorer added it – basing it most probably on a picture by another painter altogether. To notice that something is not right, and have what you noticed explained, makes you confident that you have begun to attend to the pictures. But it is best to start with the pictures themselves.

The exhibition Jonathan Miller has put together at the National Gallery has the character of an illustrated lecture. It is about mirrors, mirror images and their interpretation – both by the brain as we negotiate our visually ambiguous surroundings, and by the mind and hand in the form of works on paper or canvas. It uses paintings, photographs, peep-shows, diagrams and drawings as examples – some are sublime, others odd or even crude. All are to some degree reduced to the status of illustrations.

The first impression is that the exhibition (and therefore the book) is an update and footnote to Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, and there are similarities. Miller, too, shows cartoons and canonical works of art side by side and draws on research into the psychology of perception. He is not, however, trying, as Gombrich was, to answer specific questions about the development of historical styles. What links his paragraphs on serendipitously chosen aspects of his mirror theme is an appetite for explanation. One gets the impression that having decided on his subject he gathered together as many images as he could find which showed a mirror or a reflected image, and any research paper which dealt with images in mirrors, and sorted them into piles so that he could set about telling us what is going on in them. Some of the piles are revealing; some do no more than document the fact that a genre exists, or show that an ingenious caption-writer with a rich store of information can find something to say about almost anything. Prissy of me to say this, I know, but the result does not justify embarrassing many of the venerable, too familiar, quite wonderful paintings which have been brought downstairs. A reproduction would support the point as well as they do. Making them examples takes away some of their power to work on their own.

There are, on the other hand, some pictures shown only in photographs, not necessarily great works of art, which it would have been interesting to see in the flesh. What, for example, does the artwork for a Norman Rockwell illustration look like? (Not, perhaps, an easy thing to borrow: I would not be surprised to find that the Norman Rockwell Museum is about as likely to send one over as the Louvre is to lend the Mona Lisa.)

In the book which accompanies the exhibition there is, of course, no distinction between real and reproduced. It has none of the advantages or the embarrassments of the exhibition, where they jostle one another. It is a grab bag which holds good things. I had never realised, for example, that Narcissus did not fall in love with himself but with the other person who he assumed his reflection to be (which, as Miller points out, puts him somewhere below the chimps who, like human two-year-olds, have come to understand that the other in the mirror is themselves). I am grateful for his account of the work of the neuro-psychologist V.S. Ramachandran with mirror boxes. They are set up so that people who have lost limbs can see a transposed reflection of the hand they still have in the place the missing hand would be. Patients find that they feel the missing limb in the place where they see the reflection: when the reflection moves the missing limb moves. Miller’s explanation of why mirror images seem to show things back to front but not upside down unties that knot more convincingly than any other version I have come across. Isolating representations of the images caught by the bright surfaces of a chair in an Ingres portrait, a granite bowl and various bits of polished brass, silver and glazed porcelain in a whole range of still-lifes and interiors, Miller shows how painters, by including mirrors in pictures and recording the reflected images we teach ourselves to ignore, make convincing painted worlds and send often unnoticed messages about the world which lies beyond the space the picture seems to be describing: the royal couple in the mirror in Las Meninas, like die figures in the mirror in the Arnolfini portrait, must be standing where we stand as we face the picture. The eye can even edit out the whole city mirrored on the breastplate of a picture of Saint Michael.

The first illustration in Art and Illusion is a cartoon from the New Yorker. It shows an Ancient Egyptian life-class. The students hold their pencils at arm’s length, measuring the model in the approved way. Their drawing boards show figures in the profiled Egyptian style. It sums up much of the content of the book – which is what Gombrich himself says. In On Reflection another cartoon from the New Yorker serves a similar function. An elegantly moustached actor in his dressing room is engrossed in his reflection in the many mirrors which surround him. A managerial figure at the door says: ‘Tremaine, could I see you for a moment – alone?’ It is, happily, unglossed.