Golden years: Pieter de Hooch in Delft
The Delft thunderclap opened new visions, especially for Pieter de Hooch
On Monday October 12, 1654, shortly after half past eleven in the morning, a huge explosion hit a Dutch city. The “Delft Thunderclap”, as it became known, was caused by the ignition of 40 tonnes of stored gunpowder and was heard 150 kilometers away. A quarter of the city was destroyed and hundreds were killed, including the artist Carel Fabritius (he of The Goldfinch). Trees were sheared to their stumps, houses turned to ashheaps.
In a God-fearing Calvinist society, many took this to be the end of the world, with the gates of hell opening and God’s wrath cascading down upon the town. But out of this devastation came a new way of seeing the city. Where buildings had collapsed and disappeared, new sight lines were created and completely new perspectives emerged. While part of Delft was left in ruins, a new cityscape was redefined. Painters such as Egbert van der Poel, in his View of Delft After the Explosion of 1654, expressed civic pride and created a powerful new identity for the surviving citizens, with depictions of the prominent church towers left standing.
One artist in particular, Pieter de Hooch, who worked there throughout the 1650s, opted for a unique approach. He made an intriguing connection between the public cityscape and the private home. Like his contemporaries, de Hooch (pronounced De Hoak) included the familiar church towers, but incorporated them into people’s private surroundings; courtyards, alleyways and gardens, hidden from passers-by, and now bathed in new sources of light from the blasted skyline. This, according to the curators, made for a “spectacular innovation”. It’s as if the outside presence and authority of Delft’s public landmarks gives us licence to venture inside, into the private lives of its
citizens, turning their mundane routines into symbolic and integral parts of the well-ordered state.
De Hooch’s paintings from his Delft years show the quiet, intimate moments of the household, where nothing seems out of place, and even the courtyards are free of clutter. Sunlight streams through regularly cleaned panes; shafts of light discreetly illuminate one or two damp floor tiles, freshly washed. Cleanliness in Calvinist Delft is next to Godliness: home is where the mop is. If in doubt, look up at that sparkling church tower for proof. Simon Schama’s study of Dutch culture in the Golden Age, The Embarrassment of Riches, is particularly revealing about the Dutch obsession with what he describes as “militant” cleaning: a clean home, he explains, was the social and political bedrock upon which “the saving grace of Dutch culture” was built. Pieter de Hooch’s depictions of tidy courtyards and pristine interiors are stilled lives, testaments to his contemporaries’ obsession with the home as a window into greater themes of morality and patriotism. Marie Kondo may have made millions telling people how to de-clutter their life with The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up; but De Hooch’s domestic goddesses of Delft were way ahead of her.
De Hooch turned daily routines into enigmatic atmospheric dramas, bathed in a light that lends them a devotional quality. Domestic virtue equals religious conviction. In A Mother’s Duty a woman sits quietly with her daughter’s head in her lap, and buttery sunlight illuminates her starched collar and smooth forehead as she carefully delouses the girl’s hair. The details of the space are understated but breathtaking. Each room in the painting has its own illumination and reflections of light—but not a speck of dust. A small dog gazes out, inviting us to look to the sunlight that drifts through the doorway of a smaller room with an open window; you can almost smell the freshness of the air. More light from the high window on the right allows us a glimpse of the bed with starched linen covers on well-plumped pillows. De Hooch’s colours are rich and velvety; this is comfort food from a painter’s palette. Who knew a nit check could be so beatific? An ordinary and, as many parents know, loathsome, task becomes extraordinary.
For an artist who produced some 160 works in his lifetime (compared with 35 from Vermeer), there is surprisingly little known about De Hooch’s life. A bricklayer’s son, he was born in 1629, in Rotterdam, just 15 km from Delft, the son of a bricklayer. He settled in Delft in 1652, where he most probably would have met his younger contemporary, Johannes Vermeer, a colleague at the painters’ Guild. Vermeer is the obvious comparison here and the curators of this current exhibition want us to reassess De Hooch not in the shadow but from the shadow of Vermeer. Probably it was de Hooch, the slightly older artist, who inspired Vermeer into taking the art of domestic stillness into something altogether more mesmeric. But we should not underestimate de Hooch. While Vermeer’s subjects were more entrancing and subtly composed, and, yes, he probably was a better painter, de Hooch welcomes us into interior scenes which are infused with touching naturalism; it is hard not to feel emotionally engaged.
Delft was the city that shaped his artistic identity, and it is where De Hooch did his best work, so it seems astonishing that this is the first retrospective to be held in the Netherlands, let alone mainland Europe. The last solo exhibition was held at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery more than 20 years ago. In the Prinsenhof show, a collection of 30 paintings trace de Hooch’s artistic development, from his early, rather clichéd images of soldiers living it up in taverns and guardrooms, through to the atmospheric courtyards and front rooms of Delft, to aspirational Amsterdam, where he moved in 1662. There his style changed again, not for the better. The wealthy burghers of northern Europe’s prosperous banking centre look bored and indifferent to their luxurious drapes and marble floors. Their homes are showcases, not nurturing nests, and de Hooch is clearly more engaged with the accoutrements of frugal domesticity.
His most compelling works hold narratives in front of us so we can choose to fill in the gaps; yet the end of his life remains a mystery with many unfilled gaps. By the 1670s prices for paintings in Holland began to stagnate and de Hooch, along with most of his colleagues, must have faced financial hardship. Compared to his contemporaries, his paintings never commanded particularly high prices, but, with large parts of the country occupied by French troops by 1672, the economy and therefore the art market collapsed. It had been thought he ended up in a mental hospital, but recent research has established that it was his son, also called Pieter, who was committed in 1679, aged just 24. After this, there is no trace of de Hooch, his wife or his remaining six children. We do not even know where he is buried.
De Hooch presented us with comforting, non-threatening glimpses of everyday life in 17th-century Holland, which, however much they may have been contrived or imagined, still speak to us in a visual language we can understand. In his canvases, there truly is no place like home.
The exhibition “Pieter de Hooch in Delft: From the shadow of Vermeer” is at the Museum Prinsenhof Delft, Netherlands, until February 16 2020