Somewhat surprisingly, the present exhibition is the first ever devoted to Pieter de Hooch in The Netherlands. There have been exhibitions that featured his work in numbers among other Delft Masters, notably the shows in Rotterdam in 1938 and Delft in 1996, but this is the first monographic show devoted to the artist in Holland. In retrospect, it is curious that much of the scholarship on the artist has been undertaken by foreigners: the English dealer John Smith in 1833, the French critic, Thoré-Burger (1858 and 1866), the French scholar, Clotilde Brière-Misme (1927), the German and American museum leader W.R. Valentiner (1929), and the present reviewer (PhD dissertation, Yale University, 1978, and Pieter de Hooch 1629-1684, shown in Dulwich and Hartford in 1998-99, still the largest exhibition of the artist’s work ever assembled). To be sure there were Dutch scholars who contributed enormously to our understanding of the artist, notably Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (1907) whose invaluable catalogue (following Smith’s) came out in 1907, and a more limited monographic study by F.W.S. van Thienen (1945). So the present show is long overdue. The Prinsenhof has spared no effort in deploying a legion of art historians, archivists, cartographers, conservators, and historiographers to reexamine this talented master and his legacy. And the show succeeds in bringing to light many new insights but few major revelations.
The artist’s biography, for example, is recounted in detail and we learn that the artist’s mother was from Delft, that De Hooch and his early patron Justus de la Grange were distantly related, and that De Hooch and his brother-in–law, the artist Hendrick van der Burch, not only signed documents together but probably lived and worked together in the house on the Binnenwatersloot rented by the Van der Burch family. De Hooch’s straightened circumstances when he first moved to Amsterdam are also portrayed in sharper focus. But there are no new revelations of the importance of Frans Grijzenhout’s discovery (2008) that it was De Hooch’s son of the same name and not the painter who died in the insane asylum in 1679.
De Hooch’s development in the crucial decade of the 1650s is surveyed by Anita Jansen. She doubts Houbraken’s statement that De Hooch and his fellow Rotterdamer, Jacob Ochtervelt, were pupils of the Italianate landscapist, Nicholas Berchem. But there are many cases of students taking their basic instruction from masters who worked in a different genre; indeed, Houbraken affirms that Berchem first learned the fundamentals of painting from his father, Pieter Claesz, who was a still life painter, and his second teacher was Jan van Goyen, who left little or no mark on Berchem’s landscapes. And Houbraken’s additional remarks about the differences between De Hooch’s and Ochtervelt’s paintings, noting that Ochtervelt painted women engaged in handiwork, “without using much perspective in his backgrounds, which requires geometric insight and keen observation,” implying a contrast with De Hooch, suggests an informed and well-considered acquaintance with the two artists’ work. Jansen emphasizes the influence of the local Delft painters Anthonie Palamedesz and Hendrick van Vliet on De Hooch’s early formation, but they still seem less consequential for the artist’s Delft style than the Rotterdamer Ludolf de Jongh and Gerrit Houckgeest. The palette and facture of De Jongh’s guardroom paintings are closer to De Hooch than Palamedesz’s works, who by the time De Hooch arrived in Delft was not the painter he had been in the early 1630s. Following the Italian model, Dutch art historians often overemphasize the autonomy of local municipal styles, but Rotterdam and Delft are in fact only seventeen kilometers apart.
Frans Grijzenhout’s very precise examination of De Hooch’s topography in the early courtyard scenes confirms that most were imaginary but included views of actual buildings, especially in the neighborhood around the “Maeslant” house on the north side of the Binnenwatersloot owned by his in-laws. We catch glimpses of Delft church towers but De Hooch’s great contribution is not to topography but to the evocation of intimate urban spaces in the open air with a keen observation of light and atmosphere and the balanced placement of figures. Notwithstanding his depiction of tidy, well-appointed upper-middle class homes and interiors, De Hooch’s surroundings when he first arrived in Amsterdam living outside the city’s walls were probably deplorable. But the proposal to re-date four paintings from the Delft period to the Amsterdam years solely on the presumption of his poor lodgings is excessively speculative. Further, the suggestion that De Hooch’s son, Pieter, is the model in the paintings in the Getty, the Wallace, and the Thyssen collections is the type of speculation that has long been discredited.
Without question the most revealing discoveries of this show were the technical insights made by the conservators. We learn, for example, that several of the artist’s early genre paintings were painted over life-size portraits, no doubt recycled supports used by other artists, since De Hooch is not known to have painted such subjects. There also are insights into his painting techniques, including the use of the ground layer which often plays a role in the final composition. Surprisingly he also used costly pigments like ultramarine despite his modest income. For an artist whose compositions look so resolved, almost preordained, in their balance, it is remarkable how many sizeable pentimenti occur in his works. Minor adjustments to the architecture appear regularly but also whole figures are rearranged or eliminated, in a constant process of self-correction.
De Hooch’s interest in perspective probably was first piqued by his father, who was a master bricklayer. Indeed, manuals on perspective advised artists to consult other craftsmen – carpenters, bricklayers or cabinet makers. De Hooch soon mastered central perspective and pin holes at the vanishing points of his canvases reveal his methods. But curiously, De Hooch also at times (particularly around 1658) introduced a second horizon to which a second set of vanishing lines converge, possibly to better accommodate more complex views through archways or doors to adjoining spaces (which the catalogue often translates rather awkwardly as “view throughs”, for the Dutch doorkijkjes). An experimental approach is also reiterated in his painting techniques, where for example he used various ways of painting brickwork, tiles and mortar – mixing revealed ground layers, underdrawing and incised lines.
The show features several newly cleaned works, notably the lovely Card Players in a Sunny Room from the Queen’s Collection (Cat. 12), and other pictures not seen regularly in public, such as The Card Players (Cat. 9) from a private collection, The Soldier Paying the Hostess (Cat. 10) from the Bute Collection, and A Woman and Child in a Bleaching Ground (Cat. 6) from Waddesdon Manor. The last mentioned is of particular interest for De Hooch’s experimental approach to perspective and painting masonry. While most of the architecture and the bleaching ground in this painting are painted in soft focus, the mortar in the wall to the left is rendered very precisely (see detail p. 80). The technique invites comparison with Jan van der Heyden’s technique of using counterproofs from engraving plates to render his minute brickwork (see exh. cat., Jan van der Heyden, Greenwich and Amsterdam, 2006-2007, pp. 36-37, 100-101). We know that Van der Heyden painted in Delft early in his career (see View of the Oude Delft Canal with the Oude Kerk, Delft, Detroit Institute of Arts, Greenwich/Amsterdam, cat. 2) and had already begun his counterproofing technique when he executed that work, but whether the two artists interacted is uncertain.
Several long-standing puzzles are raised again by the show. It is a quandary that for all of the sleuthing in the archives and documents we have not uncovered the names of the people depicted in the family portraits in the Vienna Akademie (Cat. 8) and the Cleveland Museum of Art (Cat. 24). Close technical comparisons of repeated compositions, specifically the courtyards in Washington and The Hague (Cats. 14a & 14b) and The Bedroom in Washington and Karlsruhe (Cats. 15 a & b), have again underlined an inconsistency in De Hooch’s approach to design, a matter still in need of explanation.
Finally, an observation about the design of the show itself. As much as I appreciate its appearance in the storied Prinsenhof, the historic site of William the Silent’s assassination, and the thoughtful wall labels, archival documents, and introductory video, I found the installation, with its vast photo blow-ups covering the windows and chandeliers, to be distracting. In the modern era museum designers and installers sometimes seem to feel that the works of art are not sufficiently beautiful and impactful in their own right. For my part, the paintings are still the main attraction.
Peter C. Sutton
Bruce Museum, Greenwich