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 take me to his office where I worked as a temporary filing clerk. The office was just round the corner from the Wallace Collection, in those days almost completely unfrequented, and many times I would spend my lunch break in it. Indeed, so few were the visitors that I felt that the Wallace Collection was my own private gallery.

I always made straight for the de Hooch (there was another painting by him in the gallery, A Boy Handing a Woman a Basket in a Doorway, which was as just as beautiful, though I held it in slightly less affection). Of course, there were other wonderful paintings in the museum—canvases by Rembrandt, Velázquez, Van Dyck, Hals, and Canaletto among them—but it was de Hooch before whose work I always lingered longest.

I always made straight for the de Hooch.

Why should this be, I asked myself? His paintings in the collection were undramatic, of completely banal domestic scenes. I framed my thoughts by comparing de Hooch with Ernest Meissonnier, the once enormously fashionable nineteenth-century French history painter, of whose work there were many examples in the museum. De Hooch and Meissonnier were equally accomplished in the matter of putting paint on canvas, and indeed Meissonnier achieved almost miraculous details in his scenes of battle. And yet I apprehended without difficulty that de Hooch was by far the superior artist. There was something exhibitionistic about Meissonnier’s technique, exercised as an end in itself and possibly to cause astonishment in the viewer, whereas de Hooch exercised his technique for a true artistic end.

A woman peeling apples watched by her small daughter—what could be less dramatic? The scene takes place in the corner of a room, quite grand to judge by the portion of the fireplace that we see, and by which the woman sits as her daughter of about three stands looking at her with the grave and patient intensity of young childhood. In her right hand the little girl holds an apple, and in the left some peel as the mother lets it fall. The little girl is by no means pretty, but she is sweet, calm, and well-behaved because of the love she bears her mother. Her mother does not look straight at her, but there is nevertheless an expression of quiet tenderness on her face, evidently because of the presence of her daughter.

The scene takes place in a room of luxurious austerity. There is, of course, no clutter. Bourgeois as the house is, its inhabitants do not live in a culture of incontinent possession and disembarrassment of things: the sheer difficulty of producing anything at all, and of replacement, means that everything is valued, and attention, which is fixed on few things, is given to the aesthetic qualities of everything. Nothing in this bourgeois world could be taken for granted, not even survival from one month to the next, and thus there was an intensity to human existence that in our safer times we have lost.

There are many things to appreciate in this picture: the light that comes from the window above and forms a pattern on the wall behind the woman, the fire in the fireplace—more glowing ember than roaring flame—the elegant but not dull sobriety of the clothes of the two figures, and the overall geometric composition that is immediately soothing to the eye.

But there was also a more private reason for my deep attachment to the painting, namely the beautiful and straightforward emotional calm that reigned between the two figures, their uncomplicated and unconditional love of one another—something that I longed for as a child but never had, instead continually experiencing the petty Sturm und Drang of domestic conflict. To the inherent melancholy of any capture of a beautiful moment that is fleeting (the child, so fresh and tender, so full of trust, would grow old and die nearly three centuries before I first saw the picture), I added a personal sorrow over the fact that I would never experience anything like the little girl’s quiet, careless rapture.

As for the ordinariness of the scene depicted, it was precisely this that pleased me by comparison with the dramatic and fussy historical reconstructions of Meissonnier. The emotional authenticity of an artist is no doubt impossible to determine, but there seemed to me nevertheless something bogus and exaggerated, almost kitsch, about a man painting Napoleonic scenes seventy or eighty years after they supposedly took place. It was a kind of straining after emotion rather than emotion itself. By contrast, I intuited that de Hooch could not have painted A Woman Peeling an Apple with a Small Child or A Boy Handing a Woman a Basket in a Doorway unless he had a deep and genuine feeling for his human subjects. At any rate, since the age of fourteen I have been unable to witness an apple being peeled without recalling the mother and her daughter.

Happening to be in the Netherlands during the exhibition of de Hooch in the Prinsenhof in Delft, I of course went to see it—twice, in fact. Curiously enough, the Delft exhibition was only the second ever to be devoted to the artist’s work, the first having been at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford in 1998–99. Perhaps even more surprisingly, I discovered on speaking to several educated young Dutch that they had never heard of de Hooch. Would this have been the case fifty years ago?

Little is known of de Hooch’s life. He was born in Rotterdam, the son of a bricklayer, in 1629. He must have undergone some artistic training in his native city before he moved to Delft in the later 1640s, but no one knows from whom he received it. Three years older than Vermeer, who lived in Delft at that time, de Hooch is generally believed to have influenced him, and vice versa, though there is no documentary evidence to that effect. Then, in 1660, de Hooch moved to Amsterdam, where the market for paintings was much larger. The date of his death is unknown, but his son died in 1684 having spent the last five years of his life in the local lunatic asylum. It is not known whether de Hooch survived him—probably not, since no work of his later than the 1670s is known, and the last documentary mention of him is dated 1679.

What is clear is that the move to Delft was extremely important in his development. In Rotterdam he began by painting guardroom scenes, with soldiers in their cups attended by serving wenches, but the market for this genre was soon saturated. In any case, if de Hooch had remained stuck in it he would scarcely be remembered today, except, perhaps, by mildly obsessional art historians, for his work in the genre was distinctly second-rate.

Instead, in Delft, he found a genre—that he himself invented—that assured him his immortality, namely the Delft courtyard scenes that no one before him had thought to paint. The transformation of the quality of his painting once he found his subject was astonishing, something that, if one had known only his guardroom scenes, one would not at all have predicted. It put me in mind of the transformation (if at a lower level) of the work of Thomas Jones, the jobbing eighteenth-century Welsh landscape painter who, traveling to Naples, suddenly found his subject in the walls and roofs of that city and painted pictures of them of remarkable beauty and originality. No doubt there are literary examples of the same phenomenon—a subject found, perhaps by chance, that suddenly kindles an author’s genius.

De Hooch was the supreme painter of the love of a mother for her young daughter (only two of his paintings are of a woman and young boy, and only that in the Wallace Collection, which was not included in the Prinsenhof exhibition, can equal those of mother and daughter). Even a picture that might be expected to repel persons of modern sensibility, that of a mother delousing her daughter’s hair, is suffused with love and serenity. The mother sits with her daughter kneeling before her, almost as at prayer in a pew in church. She concentrates on the task calmly, without horror such as we might feel at having to perform it, the kneeling girl not merely unprotesting but wholly trusting.

De Hooch was the supreme painter of the love of a mother for her young daughter.

The existence of lice in the Holland of the time seems at first sight surprising, even disconcerting, for cleanliness was extremely important then (brooms, visible in a number of the pictures, symbolized moral purity achieved through physical cleanliness and tidiness). Only in de Hooch’s earlier guardroom scenes was anything—a broken clay pipe, a card fallen from the table—depicted on a floor where it should not have been, thus representing debauchery. Interestingly, the connection between lack of hygiene and head lice is now increasingly denied in the West, on the grounds that anyone can catch them, but publications from Third World countries are a good deal more forthright in accepting the connection between lice and lack of hygiene—stigma being not quite so stigmatized in the Third World.

Almost everyone agrees that de Hooch was at his best during his period in Delft and that his work deteriorated after his removal to Amsterdam. I am not sure that this is accurate. The two paintings in the Wallace Collection, for example, as good as any he ever painted, are from early in his Amsterdam period, and it was only later that his paintings lost some of their quality. Whether this was from declining powers or the fact that de Hooch had to work quicker to make ends meet and undertook a genre—group portraiture—for which he was not perfectly suited, I do not know. He was never quite as accomplished a painter as Vermeer, but you can be very good indeed and still not be as good as Vermeer.

It is always tempting to draw too many conclusions from paintings such as de Hooch’s, for example about life in the Dutch Golden Age. We are always on the lookout for times and places in which life was without today’s ugliness, though we know that, taken all in all, we should not change places eagerly with those who lived in this or any other supposedly golden age. The extremely prosperous Delft of today fortunately retains much of the beauty of de Hooch’s time, and until the twentieth century builders knew how to add without destroying. But we have our own little problems. Next to our hotel was an old synagogue, in whose courtyard some people lit candles in commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. There were armed police in attendance.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 8, on page 41
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