At Last, After 300 Years, De Hooch Has a Solo Show

In life, as in death, it was the fate of the 17th-century Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch (pronounced “de Hoke”) to be luckless in everything but the quality of his finest pictures. In his lifetime, this master painter of solidly built Dutch houses and scenes of domestic felicity seems never to have owned a home of his own. He ended his career in poverty and madness, confined to a public asylum for the insane in prosperous Amsterdam. Two or three centuries later, that in itself might have been sufficient to catapult de Hooch into a legend of large appeal. (Think of what confinement to a madhouse later contributed to the fame of his countryman, Vincent Van Gogh!) But the luckless de Hooch suffered the misfortunes of a peintre maudit long before such a melancholy fate was upheld as something to admire.

In death, moreover, de Hooch has had to wait more than 300 years for the first one-man exhibition of his paintings to be mounted anywhere in the world. This exhibition has now been expertly organized at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., by its director, Peter C. Sutton, himself an internationally recognized authority on the subject. Pieter de Hooch, 1629-1684 has already been seen at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, its only other venue, and it remains on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum through Feb. 28.

This is an exhibition that everyone with a serious interest in the art of painting will want to see. Not only has it never been done before. Given the range of loans in the present exhibition, which brings together paintings from museums in St. Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, Cologne, Leipzig, Dublin, London, Madrid, Stockholm and Amsterdam, as well as from a number of American collections, it is unlikely to be done again for a very long time to come. For most of us, this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Pieter de Hooch was born in Rotterdam to humble circumstances. His father was a bricklayer, which may account for the fastidious attention the painter lavished on brickwork, tilework and other feats of homely craftsmanship in his paintings of Dutch domestic life. His mother was a midwife, which may or may not account for the sympathetic attention given to children in de Hooch’s paintings. (He was himself a father of seven, two of whom did not survive their infancy.) From what little else we actually know about de Hooch’s life, it is said that he may have been trained in Haarlem, Netherlands, with a landscapist, Nicolaes Berchem. What we know for certain is that de Hooch settled in the city of Delft around 1652, married a local woman there in 1654 and joined the Delft artists’ guild in 1655.

It was in Delft that de Hooch made his mark as an artist, painting some of his greatest pictures in the years 1657 to 1660. It is one of the triumphs of the current exhibition in Hartford that it brings together some 16 paintings from this period of de Hooch’s highest creativity-one more, by the way, than was shown at Dulwich. For between the initial organization of the exhibition and its showing in Hartford, Mr. Sutton succeeded in persuading the private owner of Figures in a Courtyard (1658) to allow this painting to be exhibited alongside a very similar masterpiece, A Courtyard in Delft With a Woman and Child (also 1658), on loan here from the National Gallery in London. (It is for this reason that Figures in a Courtyard is not represented in the catalogue of the exhibition.)

This is believed to be the first time that these two courtyard paintings have been exhibited together, and the comparison that this close proximity affords has much to tell us about the mysteries and complexities of de Hooch’s pictorial esthetic. What we are made to feel at the outset are two completely realistic depictions of the same informal courtyard scene, with only the placement of the figures as variations, turns out on closer examination to be something quite otherwise. Not only do the structures and spaces enclosing the courtyards differ in significant detail, but the courtyard itself turns out to be pure pictorial invention. No such courtyard actually existed. As a pictorial mise en scène it was assembled in de Hooch’s capacious imagination from his mental inventory of observation, memory and embellishment, and composed to conform to a certain idea of what the “reality” of the subject needed for its complete realization.

Once we are alerted to this element of invention in de Hooch’s much-vaunted “realism,” our whole notion of illusionist space in his painting begins to seem itself to be something of an illusion-which is to say, a pictorial invention compounded of what Mr. Sutton describes as “multiple light sources, more complex perspective systems, and views of adjacent spaces.” The paradox of his art, particularly in the Delft paintings, is that the more he invents and embellishes his subjects and the spaces they occupy, the more persuasive they are as accurate renderings of what has been closely observed. There is thus a dialectic of illusion and reality in these paintings that does not readily reveal its mysteries to the casual observer.

Something similar can be said of de Hooch as a painter of cityscapes. After all the misguided comparisons we have been treated to over the years that lay claim to de Hooch as a forerunner of Cubism, an ancestor of Mondrian, and so on-all owing to his mastery of rectilinear form and multiple perspectives-I am almost embarrassed to say that the one modern painter he most reminds me of, especially in his cityscapes, is Giorgio de Chirico, the de Chirico of the piazze d’Italia pictures. Never mind that de Hooch and de Chirico were utterly different in many other respects. There is an element of fantasy in de Hooch’s cityscapes that strikes me as more akin to de Chirico than to any other painter.

Around 1661, de Hooch quit Delft for the more cosmopolitan environment of Amsterdam. To these later years belong his ambitious paintings of family portraits of the rich and the mighty. These Amsterdam paintings, of which there is also a marvelous representation in the Hartford exhibition, are full of wonderful things, yet they strike us as somewhat less personally engaged than the pictures of the Delft years. Similar liberties are taken with spatial invention, yet an element of affectionate expression is missing. The elaborate decorations and furnishings depicted in these paintings are masterfully rendered, but out of respect rather than love. Those enchanting scenes of domestic felicity and homely pleasures are supplanted by an impulse to flatter and exalt.

Is it owing to this change in the artist’s relation to his subject that the Amsterdam paintings tend to be darker, their contrasts of light and shadow more facile, and the need to embellish the composition with pictorial conceits more rampant? Some of the latter, to be sure, are quite astonishing-the bizarre lunette in A Music Party in a Hall (circa 1663-65), for example, in which de Hooch painted a partial copy of Raphael’s School of Athens . Yet it is to the paintings of the Delft years that one inevitably returns for the most complete account of de Hooch’s genius.

As to what the mystery of de Hooch’s pictorial genius consisted of, it has never been better described than it was by the 19th-century French writer and painter Eugène Fromentin in the book he wrote about Dutch and Flemish painting, The Masters of Past Time , in 1876. “The mystery of a Pieter de Hooch, [is] due,” wrote Fromentin, “to there being a great deal of air around the objects, many shades around the lights, much softening of the vanishing colors, a great deal of transformation of the aspects of things-in a word, the most marvelous use ever made of chiaroscuro, or, in other terms, the most judicious application of the law of values.”

Pieter de Hooch, 1629-1684 is a great exhibition, and both Mr. Sutton and his colleagues at the Wadsworth Atheneum are to be congratulated on its triumphant realization.