In the shadows
Dutch master de Hooch waits 350 years to show his light
by Leon Nigrosh
PIETER DE HOOCH At the Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main Street, Hartford,
Connecticut, through February 28, 1999.
Little is known about 17th-century Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch. He was born
in Rotterdam. His father was a bricklayer, his mother a midwife. He was the
eldest of five children, and his siblings all died before he did. He was
married and fathered seven children while he lived and painted in the city of
Delft and later in Amsterdam. As we look at the exhibit of 48 of de Hooch's
paintings on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum, it becomes obvious how large a
role his family and surroundings played in de Hooch's (pronounced HOKE) subject
matter and execution of his work.
As most young painters of his time, de Hooch's first works were devoted to the
traditional genre of tavern scenes. Several panels on exhibit are filled with
raucous and somewhat bawdy individuals smoking, drinking, and generally
carrying on. Off-duty soldiers, still wearing their light armor, are depicted
playing tric-trac or flirting with bar maidens. But even in these early stages
of his development, we can see that de Hooch was less interested in his
subjects and more concerned with refining his palette, improving his handling
of light sources, and capturing the appropriate perspective. In his early
painting A Man Offering a Woman a Glass of Wine, his two main characters
are colorful and well conceived; but he has obvious proportion trouble with the
man in the rear, and he virtually painted out the background to hide his
problems with perspective.
Within two years, something occurred (perhaps it was his move to the more
picturesque city of Delft) and de Hooch perfected his sense of perspective to
the extent that he could place two or more vanishing points in the same
composition and produce a comfortable sense of rightness for the viewer. This
adept sense of composition is noticeable when we compare A Woman with a Baby
in Her Lap, and a Small Child with Woman with Child in an Interior,
both produced in 1658. These two completely different scenes of home and hearth
take place in the same room, but, by subtly shifting the viewpoint, de Hooch
creates two different moods.
These two paintings also serve as studies in light. Each time we look from one
to the other we notice the different ways de Hooch plays the light coming from
outside across the ceramic tiled floors, the furniture, and the doors. His
ceaseless attraction to multiple light sources is also evident in one of his
many family bedroom scenes, A Mother and Child with Its Head in Her Lap.
Not only do we have the contrejour light coming directly at us from the
distance, but he illuminates his characters with oblique light coming off the
wall from a small overhead window.
While volumes could be devoted to de Hooch's technical mastery, it is his
depiction of apparent everyday life that is so enthralling. What appear to be
snapshots of the mundane actually turn out to be highly constructed (and often
laboriously reworked) morality tales. In his A Woman Drinking with Two Men,
and a Serving Woman, the play of light and color is in evidence,
highlighting his playful subjects. But the painting on the wall is a
reproduction of the Education of the Virgin, which offers a strong moral
counterpoint to the scene.
Couple with a Parrot shows two young people enticing the bird from its
cage with a bit of wine-soaked bread. While today we might simply marvel at the
exquisite rendition of the Turkish rug, the perspective layout of the floor
tiles, and the shadowed doorway vignette, in 1675 it was a well-known fact that
a bird escaping its cage signified the loss of virginity. The broom and bucket
in the foreground are symbols of chastity, family, and homelife.
Each painting is so full of technical mastery, color, detail, historical
artifacts, allegory, morality, and symbolism that it can take a great deal of
time to fully appreciate them individually. Together they represent the zenith
of the output of an outstanding 17th-century Dutch master who got lost in the
shadows of Vermeer, Hals, Rembrandt and had to wait 350 years for his first
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (860)