Sunday, February 10, 2008

Pieter de Hooch

Pieter de Hooch
Pieter de Hooch (pronounced de HOOGH, with a hard “g”) is a fascinating painter, both for his own oeuvre and for the inevitable comparisons to his brilliant contemporary Johannes Vermeer.

Like Vermeer, de Hooch is noted for his paintings of quiet, light-filled interiors, and occasional tranquil street or courtyard scenes. De hooch was for a time in Vermeer’s home town of Delft, where he painted many of his best known works, and was a member of the Painter’s Guild there.

Though little is actually know about either man, it’s a fair assumption that the two painters were influential on one another, if not in friendly competition, as many of their subjects and scenes are remarkably similar.

Many of the same themes are present in both painters’ scenes of domestic life within the tiled and wood beamed interiors of Delft homes: people reading a letter, sharing a drink or performing household chores (even, in the case of de Hooch’s painting above, de-lousing a child’s hair).

The two painters have different palettes, Vermeer choosing cooler backgrounds against which his brightly attired figures glow with the colors of rich fabrics, brilliant highlights and, yes, luminescent pearls; and De Hooch opting for warmer earth tones for his interiors, in which his more plainly clothed figures seem integral to their environment.

De Hooch’s depiction of the people in his scenes is warm and sensitive, but he doesn’t have the psychological insight of Vermeer’s intense personality studies, or the sense of mystery they invoke, and de Hooch’s figures are a bit stiff, almost as if they are portrayed as part of the rooms they inhabit, which are, I think, the real subject of his work.

De Hooch painted Dutch middle class life with a calm, steady eye and a remarkable skill for painting light and the texture of materials. He was a master of perspective, and the complex lines of his interiors are marvels of linear geometry.

Though he never achieved the transcendent mastery of time, space and light that made Vermeer so singular, (who did?), de Hooch was a master of light in a different way. Where Vermeer would bathe his serene interiors with a single golden source of light, that flowed in from windows on the observer’s left and spread through his compositions like atomized honey, de Hooch revels in multiple sources of light, bursting in though windows and doors, cascading through hallways and splashing on tiled floors in a complex dance of interior atmospherics.

De Hooch’s paintings are wonderfully layered; rooms give way to antechambers, which give way to other rooms, which lead through doors to courtyards; each with their own sense of atmosphere and light, worlds within worlds. This is what I love about de Hooch, and once I started reading about him, I discovered that many others do as well.

You will often hear reference to his “keyhole” paintings, compositions that offer glimpses of other scenes through open doors or windows. De Hooch, like Antonello da Messina in his amazing St. Jerome in his Study, invites us to walk into and through his paintings, beckoning us on a journey within a single image, and tantalizing us with glimpses of other vistas just beyond where we’re standing.

8 thoughts on “Pieter de Hooch

  1. John Derry

    There has been a lot of research and speculation that the camera obscura played a part in the look of Vermeer’s work. Interior scenes certainly would have been the ideal lighting in which to utilize such a tool. I wonder if de Hooch perhaps had knowledge of the camera obscura? His emphasis on perspective within his interiors would seem to re-enforce the possibility.

  2. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks for the comment, John. I think the evidence is very strong that Vermeer did use a camera obscura, and likely that de Hooch had access to one as well, though I don’t see the perspective quirks in his images that are part of the evidence scholars point to when analyzing Vermeer’s images.

    Other readers should check out John Derry’s site at pixelart.com. John is one of the originators of Painter, the amazing digital painting and image manipulation application originally from Fractal Design and now being sold and continuing to be developed by Corel.

  3. Sid Leavitt

    God, Charley, I hate to be away from the Internet for a few days because there’s always so much good stuff on lines and colors to catch up on. (Wow, two prepositions. See how hurried I am?)

    Anyway, how in hell do you do it? And in two consecutive posts, spanning the distance from Gez Fry to Pieter de Hooch. I love it, but you’re exhausting me.

    Well, my wife says I need the exercise, so keep up the good work. And I’ll try to keep up, too.

  4. oakling

    I love how much this looks like a really good modern photograph or movie still. I really prefer his use of light to Vermeer’s; I like the depth it gives the scene. Do you know of anyone doing similar work now?

  5. elijah

    One of my favorite Dutch painters. I wonder if at least some of the paintings on these walls have been identified.

    I think another difference between the two masters is that Vermeer reveals more about the psychology of his models while De Hooch more about the psychology of his own persona. In a way it’s easier to identify with the latter because of that. But easy is not always that interesting, is it.

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