More Light on Delft

Pieter de Hooch, though often cited as a painter of domestic Dutch scenes, was never the exclusive subject of a show until one this fall, which enjoyed record-breaking attendance in its ten weeks at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery before coming, with the winter, to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. His reputation has long been associated with that of his contemporary Vermeer. When in 1765 a painting of his was offered for sale in Amsterdam, it was described as “zoo goet als de Delfze van der Meer“—“as good as Vermeer of Delft”—and the nineteenth-century French critic Théophile Thoré, in reviving Vermeer’s reputation, attributed to him five paintings by de Hooch. It is true that both painters portray intimate domestic interiors of a modest scale and quiet mood, but de Hooch suffers cruelly from the comparison. His brushwork is scratchy, his colors brownish and murky, and his compositions haphazard when viewed with Vermeer’s pellucid and exquisitely rigorous canvases in mind. Compared with Ver-meer, de Hooch does not draw well, let alone paint with the younger man’s serene rapture of weightless touch and opalescent color.

For Vermeer, as for very few artists prior to the Impressionists, painting is not just the method but the subject, a topic explored in such dazzling visual essays as the reflections on a brass water pitcher and basin, the shadows falling across the shallow ridges of an unscrolled map, the photographically exact yet rather freely brushed pattern of a folded and foreshortened Oriental rug, the liquid spill of a lacemaker’s red and white threads, the cool folds and dimples of a silk skirt, the delicately muted and flattened colors of a picture on a wall—a picture within a picture to tell us that this too is a picture. The science of perspective and the invention of the camera obscura opened to Vermeer, in this era of burgeoning astronomy and microscopy, a world of optical truth to which both the painter and his human subjects are in a sense transitory visitors, accessories to the transcendent process whereby light defines objects.

With de Hooch the topic is less the seeing than what we see—homely Dutch folk and their furniture, their rooms, the cityscape glimpsed over their shoulders. Thirty-eight of his paintings fill two big rooms of the Wadsworth (it and the Dulwich Gallery, the catalog proudly points out, are equally venerable—“the first public museums to open in their respective countries”) and they reveal not only where de Hooch falls short of Vermeer but where he goes beyond him, providing what Vermeer in his great rarefaction does not. Children, for one thing. Though Vermeer had at least eleven, not a single child appears in a painting by him, perhaps because children could not remain still long enough.

On the other hand, a high proportion of the de Hooch canvases on display at Hartford contain children—a bit stiffly and incidentally in Mother and Child with a Serving Woman Sweeping (circa 1655-1657 …

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