by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Mysterious Pieter de Hooch

By Roderick Conway Morris
DELFT 3 January 2020
National Gallery, London
The Courtyard of a House in Delft by Pieter de Hooch, 1658



The seventeenth-century Dutch master Pieter de Hooch was, according to Abraham Bredius, the connoisseur, collector and De Hooch's champion, 'a great man among the great men of Delft'.

A contemporary of Johannes Vermeer, De Hooch has long been recognized as 'the other' great Delft artist, who in a remarkably short period in the second half of the 1650s created a series of masterpieces on which his fame now mainly rests. Indeed, in the late eighteenth century De Hooch's works commanded higher prices than those of Vermeer.

Surprisingly, there has never been an exhibition devoted to De Hooch in his homeland. This has now been remedied by an enthralling show at the Museum Prinsenhof Delft featuring nearly thirty of De Hooch's paintings, now widely scattered through public and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic (though none, to the city's regret, remains in Delft).

Vermeer was described as 'the Sphinx of Delft' by Théophile Thoré (pseudonymously known as William Bürger), who collected, exhibited and traded in this artist's works in the first half of the nineteenth century – eventually turning him into a kind of cult figure – but De Hooch has remained even more mysterious. However, thanks to archival, topographical and artistic analysis carried out in preparation for this exhibition by the curators Anita Jensen and David de Haan and their team of experts in various fields, the trajectory of De Hooch's career has become clearer.

These new studies appear to confirm that initially at least Vermeer was more influenced by De Hooch than vice versa, and the two painters continued to study each other's works closely over an extended period – subsequently, pictures by these masters were commonly mistaken for one another's.

De Hooch was born the son of Hendrick, a bricklayer, in 1629 in Rotterdam. Very little is known about the artist's early life or with whom he learned to paint. But his mother, Anneken Pieters, was from Delft, so he also had family connections there. He is first documented as living in Delft in 1652. Two years later he married Jannetje, the sister of the Delft painter Hendrick van der Burch. A number of other artists came to the city during that period as it became an increasingly lively centre of artistic innovation, in various genres, including church interiors, landscape and cityscapes.

Most of De Hooch's earliest known pictures are guardroom scenes of off-duty soldiers drinking, smoking and playing cards, typically sharing the company of, and being waited on by, young women. Some of these give glimpses through open doorways or windows, which De Hooch was soon to develop into more extensive through-views.

The need to support a wife and family may well have acted as a stimulus to the young painter to strike out and try to distinguish himself from the local competition. He was registered as a master painter in the Delft Guild of St Luke in 1655, and it was at this time that he started to introduce a new style of interior with more complex light and spatial effects, peopled mainly by women at their daily tasks, infants and young children, expanding these scenes with through-views to back rooms and partial views of backyards. He also began to produce open-air courtyard scenes. Such domestic indoor and outdoor scenes would later come to be regarded as a quintessential element of Golden Age Dutch painting.

At the beginning of his career Vermeer, who was an acknowledged expert on Italian art, painted biblical, historical and mythological scenes. It was only from 1656 that he turned to painting interiors, almost certainly following De Hooch's example, and thereafter Vermeer devoted himself to domestic interiors. His rare excursions into exterior subjects – 'The View of Delft' and 'View of Houses in Delft, known as 'The Little Street' – were unmistakably influenced by De Hooch.

For his own paintings De Hooch seems not to have had to stray far from home. He very likely used his own wife and small children as models. A boy with shoulder-length hair, almost certainly his son Pieter, can be seen in successive canvases, as though in a series of family snaps, gradually growing up over a period of years.

The artist's exterior and courtyard scenes are distinctively 'Delftian'. In 'A Woman and Child in a Bleaching Ground' (on loan from Waddesdon Manor), for example, he includes in the background two of the town's skyline's most distinctive features, the bell towers of the Oude Kerk and the Nieuwe Kerk. However, we now know, thanks to Wim Weve's fruitful topographical research for this show, that a bleaching ground could not have been located at this spot, which was occupied by the long sixteenth-century wing of the St Agatha Cloister (now the Prinsenhof Museum); nor would the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk have been visible from here.

There are other examples of individual architectural elements that De Hooch depicted pretty accurately, but artfully arranged and re-arranged in different paintings to achieve particular effects. As the son of a bricklayer, he took enormous trouble in depicting individual bricks, mortar and courses of brickwork with almost photographic precision.

One surviving architectural detail, a stone tablet of 1614 commemorating the St Hieronymous Cloister (abandoned after a fire in 1536), appears set in the brickwork above the passageway in 'The Courtyard of a House in Delft' and, now detached, is exhibited along with the painting (on loan from the National Gallery in London).

The regular recurrence of certain buildings and vantage points suggests De Hooch found all the inspiration he needed in a limited district around the former St Agatha Cloister, the Oude Kerk and the Oude Delft (Old Canal), the town's most ancient waterway, and it is likely that his workshop or home, or possibly both, were located there.

But while Vermeer stayed in Delft, in about 1660 De Hooch departed to try his fortunes in Amsterdam. Judging by the addresses he lived at, the venture was not financially successful. Although he did not wholly abandon interior and courtyard views, he clearly hoped to find a more profitable market in painting family portraits. (The sitters in only one of these Amsterdam group portraits, the Jacott-Hoppesack Family, have so far been identified.)

Yet some of the later interiors are outstanding in terms of their composition, atmosphere and the vibrant handling of light. The luminous 'Woman Weighing Gold and Silver Coins' (from Berlin) of the early 1660s appears to have prompted Vermeer to paint 'A Woman Holding a Balance' (now in Washington DC). No less boldly colourful and memorable is De Hooch's 'Man Reading a Letter to a Woman' from the early 1670s.

Virtually nothing is known of De Hooch's final years. It has been discovered that his son Pieter was committed to an asylum in 1679, which gave rise to the erroneous belief that it was the father who died there. But how, when and where this inspiring artist died remains an intriguing mystery.

'Pieter de Hooch in Delf' at Museum Prisenhof, Delf, 11 October 2019 - 16 February 2020

Pieter de Hooch in Delft
224pp.W Books
David de Haan, Frans Grijzenhout, Anita Jansen, Anna Krekler, Jaap van der Veen, Wim Weve

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023