During my adolescence, Pieter de Hooch was my favorite painter, and to this day if I were given the choice of any picture in the world’s galleries to own, I might very well choose his Woman Peeling Apples with a Small Child (ca. 1663) that now hangs in the Wallace Collection in London.

It was this painting that first provoked me to ask questions (strictly in the privacy of my own mind; I never expressed them to others for fear of appearing precious, pretentious, or even ridiculous) about the nature of artistic merit. What was it about this painting that so moved me and that allowed me to look at it over and over again with unceasing pleasure? For the first time in my life, I tried to formulate reasons for artistic preference.

I was about fourteen at the time, and during the school holidays my father would...


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