art david gelber
He Had a Light Touch Pieter de Hooch in Delft: From the Shadow of Vermeer
Edited by Anita Jansen
(W Books 223pp £30)
Exhibition at the Museum Prinsenhof, Delft, until 16 February 2020
The most famous interior in Delft is not one of those sunbathed parlours, filled with globes, paintings, chandeliers and virginals, half-seen in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, but a dusky whitewashed passageway in the Prinsenhof, formerly a monastery, later a palace and now home to the city’s municipal museum. There, a small frame at hip level guides the eye to two dimples in the wall, which, were it not for the plaque above, might be dismissed as scars from a minor accident during a furniture move. But here was no mishap. The two holes stand as a memorial to the father of the Dutch nation, William of Orange, who was gunned down on this spot by a fanatical Catholic in 1584.
The Prinsenhof is host to a new exhibition of paintings by Pieter de Hooch, whose interior scenes bear a striking resemblance to those of Vermeer, his acquaintance and colleague in Delft’s Guild of St Luke. De Hooch was born in Rotterdam in 1629, but took up residence in Delft in the 1650s, his most fruitful period, before relocating to Amsterdam the following decade. He has long been eclipsed by Vermeer, though his interiors are arguably more ambitious. ‘We do not place the paintings by this master in the first rank,’ wrote the 18th-century French dealer Alexandre-Joseph Paillet. This is the first solo exhibition of his work for twenty years, and only the second ever.
Not one of de Hooch’s paintings remains in Delft, meaning that this exhibition has had to be created from scratch. It and the accompanying catalogue, which surveys de Hooch’s life, artistry and legacy, are a marvel of industry and intelligence. The long-awaited reunification of de Hooch’s works has prompted a major study of his technique, using imaging technology and pigment analysis. The findings are set out in forensic detail by Anna Krekeler in one of six catalogue essays.
‘Cardplayers in a Sunlit Room’, 1658
By the middle of the 17th century, Amsterdam had established its pre-eminence within the United Provinces of the Netherlands, but Delft, home to a chamber of the Dutch East India Company and a flourishing ceramics industry, was thriving too. Painters such as Carel Fabritius, Emanuel de Witte and de Hooch himself were drawn to the city, where they joined such native artists as Vermeer and Hendrick van der Burch, whose sister de Hooch married. While it might not have matched Amsterdam in influence, Delft played a unique part in the national consciousness. It was the last resting place of William of Orange, whose stately tomb in the Nieuwe Kerk became a pilgrimage site. With its network of canals, eastern trading links, school of painting and starring role in the birth of the republic, it was easy to imagine Delft as a new Venice. The exhibition opens with a view of the city, captured from within an imaginary Italianate loggia, by Daniël Vosmaer and a panorama by Hendrick Vroom showing the city ringed by water, a gondola front and centre.
De Hooch’s works were on a more intimate scale than these townscapes, foregrounding the domestic rather than the monumental. Even so, the symbols of the city, most notably the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk – the St Mark’s of Delft – often loiter at the back of the courtyard views that, along with his interiors, became his calling card. In this small, easily traversable country, these landmarks would have been familiar beyond Delft, particularly given their associations with Dutch independence. They were also a reminder that the Dutch were God’s elect, a popular belief in the 17th century. In a few paintings, such as The Colf Players, de Hooch added in the city’s other great gift to the country and the world beyond: Delftware tiles. This, then, was local art with a national tinge. Little is known, Jaap van der Veen explains in a biographical sketch of the artist, about de Hooch’s clients. But it is telling that the one major patron who has been identified during his Delft years, the merchant Justus de la Grange, was a native of Leiden rather than Delft itself.
In the 1650s, the Netherlands had only recently emerged from its eighty-year war with Spain. Fittingly, an air of peace and stillness characterises de Hooch’s Delft paintings, even when they portray potentially divisive scenarios, such as card games. De Hooch’s early works were boisterous drinking scenes, set in semi-elaborated guardrooms, of the kind common enough in early 17th-century Dutch painting. As the country weaned itself off war, however,
Literary Review | november 2019 12