[NOTE: Contains spoilers ;D of the Pieter De Hooch exhibition at the Prinsenhof in Delft, ending February 16, 2020]
When you come to Delft, inevitably you will arrive in the central square where the towering Nieuwe Kerk and the dark, stately town hall stand on opposite ends. Tile-roofed, brick row houses enclose the square, forming the warm, gezelligheid of the city.
The town hall is pale yellow stone; a complex conglomerate of richly adorned sections, stone flourishes, urns, and finials, draped with ancient black varnish. Red shutters on either side of the many windows decorate the stone in rows. It’s a complicated and specific red. Sometimes it is a dark, cool, plumy maroon, sometimes brick red, but when the sun is shining from the light cerulean Delft sky, it somehow glows vermilion.
Parallelograms of rusty orange-red tiled roofs, occasionally phosphorescing from sunlight that comes and goes, stand in the distance against the dark red shutters of the town hall…
I told myself before I went in to the Pieter De Hooch exhibition that I would try to clear my mind of what I know and have seen. I took my time and wandered a bit through the town on my way.
The exhibition is an evolution of color and space, from warm, tonal interiors to expansive, triumphant visions of atmosphere and harmony. With mystic dreams of Dutch garden idylls, and symbolist alienation along the way.
It begins with his early interiors, such as ‘A Seated Soldier with a Standing Serving Woman’.
Pieter De Hooch, Serving maid raising beer glass in an inn with a soldier in armor and cardplayers beyond, 1652–1655
The painting *feels* interior. Umbers and ochres build a warm and closed space. The diagonal, arcing compositional structure contains the image, and the light, the release from the action, comes from the inside out. Behind the woman in the chromatic red dress with the dash of jeweled scarlet-purple of her wine glass, there are two men playing cards. A coarse stroke of orangey-red marks the man’s hand in the moment of playing a card, and behind him, a snapshot of an opponent in momentary thought and determination to play his next card. The little scene is a masterwork of immediacy, economy, and atmosphere.
It seems to me that ‘A Seated Solder..’ has to be mentioned alongside ‘The Empty Glass’ as a beautiful pair of variations in the exhibition.
Pieter De Hooch, The Empty Glass, 1652
Cool umbers and earthy greens form a platform for harmonics of olive and orange in the lady’s dress. It is the sensitivity to tone and color characteristic of later painters like Chardin or Morandi but still carrying the weight of the Renaissance.
Women are always central. Of course he was a man just like Vermeer, but somehow his eye is more empathetic.
Variations on a warm ground with moments of color liberation and flourish.
The paintings that follow are so well known to history, yet seeing them with what came before heightens the experience of the harmonic color achievement they were.
Pieter De Hooch, The Courtyard of a House in Delft, 1658
No picture can do this painting justice. The orchestration of color is indescribable. The space has opened, and filled with the outdoor Netherlandish light. The vignette in yellows in the doorway on the left is an epic image. The woman’s warm yellow dress is filled with a dazzling peach glow from the sun beyond. The overall architecture of the painting is a balance of dynamism and eternal, symbolic stability. The primary colors of the foreground woman and child mark the painting as characteristically De Hooch, Delft, Dutch. Delicate, pastel yellows and blues of the foliage and flowers frame the scene…it’s beauty to behold.
Then there’s the red shutter, oddly cropped at the left. An abstraction that osciallates both in color and space, partially blocking the scene beyond. It enforces a reminder of the world beyond the edge (and the surface).
For me, one of the highlights was ‘Card Players in a Sunlit Room’. It’s an interior again, but the space is wide open. Exquisitely specific reds and oranges are embedded across the surface: the gray-blue-red of the woman’s dress in the distance, the abstract rectangles of pale peach and pinks of the curtains, the red shutter, the radiating purple orange of the man’s feathered cap, ruby red on his coat trim, and the warm orange red of the chair. Everything shimmering in an atmospheric, cool blue-grey frame, surrounding a woman (surrounded by men) in a Delft blue dress, with a red shoe peeking out. It’s color architecture that adds up to a unified vision.
Pieter De Hooch, Cardplayers in a Sunlit Room, 1658.
Amid with well-known masterpieces were explorations that add a different dimension to De Hooch, for me.
Pieter De Hooch, Frau mit Bohnenkorb im Gemüsegärtchen, 1651
The woman in the garden and the flattening, stylized foliage create a strange air of stillness and solidity. The light is dreamlike, in the shadow of her Deflt home. It’s a mysterious, symbolic image.
And the little red shutter in the left middle was almost unnoticable at first, then it kind of anchors the painting and hovers there: a floating rectangle over the silvery green vegetation.
Pieter De Hooch, The Council Chamber in Amsterdam Town Hall, 1663–1665
Painted in Amsterdam, behind that ginormous, absurd baroque orange curtain, each person seems like they are each in their own melancholic dream state. It has an acidic ocher-orange palette, The woman on the right gazing out of the window reminds me of de Chirico: alien, strange. I know it was a ceremonial image, etc., but it just adds up to an iconic picture of stasis and alienation. I think only the dog fully comprehends…
There are as close to infinite shades of red as the quantum limits (and semantics) allow, De Hooch found a precious, infinitesimally small slice in Delft. All that old Delft-blue of the painted porcelain is not the color I most identify with the city.
I left the exhibition with the certainty that I will go back. It was as good as they get, from my perspective.