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PIETER DE HOOCH

by Laura van Roij



 

    Not every cultural event supported by governments and wealthy firms turns out to be a memorable occasion in one's love life: Hartford, Connecticut, was the place of such a happy conjunction; the occasion was the exhibition, "the first ever devoted exlusively to de Hooch's art" (according to the brochure), at the Wadsworth Atheneum. The time was February, 1999.
    I was five or six when my mother took me for the first time to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and I fell in love with de Hooch. More precisely, it happened when I looked at Woman and Child in an Interior or The Pantry. The experts claim that the child in that painting is a little boy, but I was sure, and upon finding it again at Hartford I still am, that she's a little girl. As for the woman who offers me, the little girl, a jug of beer, I knew she was my aunt Emma, even though experts say that she's a servant. The tiled floor, the ocher walls, the latticed windows, the wood of the doors polished by the years, without much effort I could locate them in our house in Amsterdam. No, the little boy is my brother Floris, the one being deloused in Moederzorg, or A Mother and Child with its Head in her Lap, while our cat Scaramouche takes in the light.
    It has been a long love affair with the Old Master, and in many countries. When I worked in London I used to stand in the National Gallery before A Courtyard in Delft with a Woman and a Child, and when I married an American man and came to live in the U.S., I'd spend hours at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in front of The Bedroom. My husband used to ask, "What, exactly, do you love in de Hooch?"
    Good question, which I think is roughly equivalent to (but here I may be flattering myself): What makes de Hooch de Hooch? Replace "de Hooch" by the name of any painter, and you have the question of connoisseurship. I am not a connoisseuse, though, merely a lover of de Hooch, and so I told my husband, "Happiness, you see, has many layers; you are the uppermost, but de Hooch is the innermost: he is my childhood, the happiness of home."
    "You can do better than that," he replied. Stephen might have been a bit jealous, but he was a rigorous thinker, a physicist, and he was right. Bringing up happiness will never answer the question, What makes de Hooch de Hooch, or, for that matter, What makes anything at all what it is. Hegel's definition in the Aesthetics, that Dutch painting is "the Sunday of life," doesn't help us much further.
    A year later I thought I had solved the problem using the concept of space. It went more or less as follows: space, in the singular, is a relatively novel idea; for most of our history there have been multiple, separate spaces, and to move from one to another one needed rituals, initiations, disciplines. What we now call art used to be one of those disciplines. When you visit the Byzantine monuments in Ravenna, entering the mausoleum of Galla Placidia means entering the space of the dead, which here is also the threshold to eternal life; that is very different from entering the Caesarean splendor of, say, the Baptistery of the Cathedral. Mythological images allow us to enter that space so dear to the humanists, so brimming with allusions, and here the aristocratic discipline of classical learning is necessary as well. It is redundant to say that those spaces were imaginary: all spaces are, if by imagination we mean the power to picture what we are not actually seeing, and who has ever actually seen space as such?
    Space became one and singular with Descartes, a connected whole in need of no rituals, initiations or any discipline other than mathematical, just as Mind had appeared as one and singular to the Neoplatonists. Should I add that Descartes and Cartesianism are Dutch, more so than they are French? Already geometrized by the Greeks and then by Renaissance perspective, space now became number, and I thought I could detect the mesh of Cartesian coordinates in the lovingly rendered bricks and tiles of de Hooch, quite apart from the fact that the painter's father was a bricklayer. But here's the gist of my argument: those windows and passageways, leading from the quiet indoors to the public bustle of the street, which are often taken as the signature of de Hooch, what are they but an emblem of Cartesianism? Enough to remember that Descartes started with a dream, and followed it with quiet, solitary reflection in a poêle, a warmed room in Neuburg or in Ulm, to end up with a system which encompassed the universe: from intimacy to the cosmic; from one man's cogito, amazingly, to divine truth. What made de Hooch de Hooch, then? Briefly, he pictured and captured Cartesian space and thought at a very early moment, at that brief moment of childhood charm which, with ideas as with people, lasts only until they are turned into something to be expected and exploited.
    I abbreviate; my argument was more detailed in several respects, but it did not impress my husband. "What about the lovely light of de Hooch? What does it have to do with Descartes?," he said. In vain I searched the Dioptrics and the Meteors for a clue to the secret of de Hooch's light. The matter rested there for a long time, until I went to Hartford last February. I went alone, for my husband died three years ago. Before I went to see the exhibit, though, I read John Updike's piece on de Hooch in The New York Review of Books (February 18, 1999); I mention this to show that I am not alone in trying to solve the de Hoochian enigma, and because I'm proud to be in the company of a novelist I admire.
    For my purpose, my problem, Updike's piece was of little help. He muses, "Perhaps space is the secret topic that concerned de Hooch." This is like saying that teeth are the secret topic that concerns dentists; space is the not-so-secret discipline of all painters, and space is where we act, dream, pray, and live. Hence it makes no sense to separate a concern for space from ethics, and I could not but wince when I read, "Such canvases [by de Hooch] have been lifted above the anecdotal interest of genre scenes to a plane of pure painting¾ `pure' for a lack of a juster word to denote painting as disinterested exploration and meditation." I wish those words, "pure" and "disinterested," were expunged from the vocabulary of art criticism: they are a mouldy, crumbling chest we inherited from the Enlightment, where Kant and others put art because they didn't know what else to do with it. Another novelist I admire knew better. In his Histoire de la peinture en Italie, Stendhal wrote the following footnote: "Si je parlais à des géomètres, j'oserais dire ma pensée telle qu'elle se présente : la peinture n'est que de la morale construite". All paintings are moral constructions which, like geometrical ones, serve not only to illustrate but, more importantly, to demonstrate and to discover.
    Finally, Updike classifies de Hooch's painting as Protestant. "A metaphor for Protestantism's new version of religious experience," he writes. And this "new version" in painting consists (at least in part, I suppose) in populating Bible scenes with "people we know: a Protestant assertion that brings the sublime down to earth." I am almost embarrassed to point out that populating religious images with people we know antedates the Reformation by a few hundred years. The oblique, almost Chinese canthus of the figures in XIVth-century Siennese pictures belongs to the eyes of most people in Siena, even today, and it should be enough to send Updike to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and direct him to van Eyck's Crucifixion, to convince him that there, already, the sublime was brought down to earth.
    "No, it's definitely early Cartesianism, not Protestantism," I said to myself as I was driving to Hartford, mulishly, in spite of the dark, sad hole my husband had left in my theory. I entered the exhibit at the Wadsworth as a young bride going into the bridal chamber (at my age!) Modesty and decency forbid to describe my feelings at each of those stations of delight; suffice to say I wasn't disappointed. I will describe instead the conversation I overheard as I was standing before de Hooch's Merry Company from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. Three women were standing right next to me; one was about my age, the others much younger. Now in this painting there are four men and two women; one man has just entered, hat in hand, another is pulling a bell cord to summon a servant, a third is playing the violin, and the other man is fondling the breasts of the lady at his left; they are drinking and smoking, apparently having a grand time. Above the mantle there's a painting within the painting, representing the rape of baby Ganymede by Zeus in the shape of an eagle. For particulars about the probable source and meanings of this image I refer the reader to Peter C. Sutton's learned and beautiful Exhibition catalogue, pp. 150-152.
    Returning to the three women standing next to me, the older one asked what could have been the painter's intention in putting the baby and the eagle above the mantlepiece, and another replied, "Why, it means that when people behave like that, something horrible will happen to them, like being carried away by an eagle." "The Dutch, you know, were notorious for their lack of morals," said the first woman, "and that's why when the Puritans sailed from England in the Mayflower they refused to stop in Holland." Then the youngest one, who couldn't have been over twenty-five, said, "All you see in these paintings is women serving men." Her tone and gesture were not of approval.
    This dialogue, which may seem made up, I have reported faithfully, almost verbatim. For a while I was distracted from the paintings. My thoughts went back to Updike and his Protestantism, then to my decades in this country. O America, my beloved adoptive land, America of dour feminists and special prosecutors, America which I don't think I'll ever understand; your enigma, to me, is much harder to make out than the light of de Hooch. For the latter I was able to crack. It happened as I was leaving the museum, going down the stairs while rummaging in my purse for the car keys, and it happened suddenly, decisively, so much so that I ran or rather trotted down the stairs and along Main Street shouting "Heureka!" My illustrious compatriot Christiaan Huygens had illumined my mind, and now it is only a question of ellucidating the sense of that illumination.
    Christiaan's father, Constatijn, was a most accomplished gentleman and poet, perhaps the greatest master of the Dutch tongue, and a friend and correspondent of Descartes. Christiaan was born the same year as de Hooch, 1629; very early on Descartes predicted his future greatness, after perusing some theorems he had proved. Christiaan Huygens' inventions and discoveries are indeed many and important, but here I am exclusively concerned with what's called Huygens Principle, because it is of light we speak. Light, for Descartes, was the motion of tiny corpuscules behaving like tennis balls; with this model he could explain the phenomena of reflection and refraction. But other optical phenomena ¾ interference (under certain circumstances, two beams of light will not add up but rather cancel, resulting in darkness) and diffraction (an opaque sheet of paper on which shines a point source of light will not cast a sharp shadow: there will be alternatingly dark and bright lines near, and parallel to, the edges) ¾ require a different model, ondulatory, and Huygens can be justly called, more so than the great Dutch admirals, Master of the Waves.
    Regular waves, however ¾ e.g. in one dimension, the displacement at each point of a taut string that's plucked; in two, the height of the water of a pond after we drop a pebble; in three, the periodic alternations of high and low pressure in the air that we detect with our ears as sound ¾ explain the interference of light, but are not enough to give an account of diffraction phenomena. To do this, Huygens came up with the following idea: each point on a light wave-front (the surface of a sphere, let's say) is not the passive locus through which the wave passes, but the active source of another light wave. I must omit the mathematical details; this astounding Principle of Huygens raised paradoxes which were cleared up by much later refinements (today, of course, we have quantum mechanics;) the two important things to keep in mind are: for Huygens each and every lighted point is itself a source of light, and this maze of wave-producing waves must take place in (would not make sense without) Cartesian space. This, I submit, is what happens in the paintings I love, in de Hooch as well as in Vermeer.

    Look at van Eyck's Annunciation at the National Gallery in Washington: light descends on Mary, light as an emblem of the Holy Spirit, coming from heaven as grace, making her gratiae plena. She receives it, and only nine months later she will render it back as our Savior. In de Hooch every thing touched by light ¾ a brick, a tile, a nail, a bed warmer hanging from the nail ¾ no object too trivial or too small ¾ becomes a source of grace rendered immediately. What this does to theology I am unable to tell, but here the air itself trembles with grace, for light, as in the verse of Guido Cavalcanti, " fa tremar di chiaritate l'a're." And if you can put your senses to good use (I'd like to tell this to the three ladies of Hartford, but will they listen?), in the midst of innocent delights ¾ music, a little drink, a bit of smoke, good company, the flesh ¾ who knows, the eagle may descend and, wings aflutter, enrapture your soul, like Ganymede.

    I am not saying that de Hooch was influenced by Huygens; how could that be: the latter's Traité de la lumière was composed in 1678, when most of those paintings I love were already painted. Perhaps it was the other way around, and the great physicist was inspired by the paintings of his compatriots. In any case, I am happy to have found an emblem, a Dutch one, for the light and the space in Dutch painting. One which I'm sure my husband would have liked.


 

See pictures by de Hooch on the Web


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