I was at an event last night with the British Ambassador and various other officials and afterwards I was chatting to the British Consul General and he asked why I had decided to live in Holland. One of the reasons I gave rather surprised him – I said it was because I liked Dutch paintings.
More than any others of the old masters of the 17th and 18th, they depict ordinary people in everyday life. Yes, of course there are allegorical paintings and the portraits of the rich and powerful, but a very large proportion are of street scenes, domestic situations, merchants and unromantic landscapes – with the odd cow, windmill and ice skating thrown in for good measure. The paintings are representative of the Dutch people even today – down to earth and unpretentious, just going about their business.
No Dutch painters typify this more than two Delft-based artists, Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch whose paintings are currently on show for the first time in an exhibition dedicated entirely to his work in The Netherlands.
The two painters were contemporaries and would almost certainly have known each other – their names even appear on the same page of the register of Delft painters of 1655, two or three years after de Hooch had moved there from Rotterdam where he was born in 1629.
In fact, there is such a similarity in the artists’ paintings, done in the late 1650s, that one could easily imagine the two chums setting up their easels next to each other to paint the same subject. This is never more obvious than with Vermeer’s The Little Street of 1657/8 and de Hooch’s The Courtyard of a House in Delft of a similar date.
There was another exhibition a year or two ago at the Prinsenhof about the search for the precise location of Vermeer’s Little Street. There were lots of theories, none of them really conclusive. However, the setting of many of de Hooch’s paintings can be located very accurately because various landmarks that are still there figure prominently in the pictures. So much so that after you have seen the exhibition you can follow a trail around town and visit many of those locations.
It took de Hooch a while to find his little niche, his artistic identity, but when he did his work blossomed and he found a rich vein painting ordinary people in Delft’s muddy alleys and brick-paved back-yards. There are women feeding chickens, women spinning or having a beer or, as in the picture above, doing their laundry. There is only one formal painting, that of a Delft family group neatly arranged in a courtyard, wearing their Sunday best.
Another thing the paintings have in common is that they all have another, largely unseen and mysterious dimension. They virtually all have an open door or passage at the back, usually revealing a distant figure or two. There is no clue as to who these people are or what they are doing. One has the feeling, that if one was standing where they were, one would see the painting from a different viewpoint and the subject that we now see in the foreground would itself become mysterious and unexplained. De Hooch also revisited his work; there are some pictures which are almost the same, save for a figure added or removed for example, The Courtyard of a House in Delft and Figures Drinking in a Courtyard
One wouldn’t describe Pieter de Hooch as a lesser Dutch artist but he certainly is not as well-known as Vermeer whose work is now reproduced on everything from tea-towels to bicycle bells. But it was not always thus. At the end of the nineteenth century de Hooch’s work commanded higher prices than that of any other Dutch master.
This is a small, nicely presented exhibition which is part of the Dutch celebrations of The Golden Age, marking the death of Rembrandt 350 years ago. You will certainly know Vermeer but here is the chance to better acquaint yourself with another artist with whom he had a great deal in common. Michael Hasted 15th October 2019
PIETER DE HOOCH IN DELFT: From the Shadow of Vermeer continues at Museum Prinsenhof in Delft until 16th February 2020.
Photographer Mike Fear