A woman stands with her back to us near a table raising a glass of wine. Two men, looking intently at her, are seated at the table which has been placed next to the window perhaps to make the most of the light which floods into the room from the large windows. Nearby, a maid is bringing some glowing coals into the room. De Hooch has used the raking golden light of evening to fill the room and make it a credible space. A combination of shadow and highlight effortlessly gives the objects and people in the room real volume and presence; the illusion of three-dimensional space is greatly enhanced by the way de Hooch has used the quintessentially Dutch chequered floor and the roof beams to show off his impressive mastery of perspective.
We know that de Hooch painted the architecture of the room first before starting on the figures. This is confirmed by infra-red photography but it is easy to see with the naked eye in some passages, in particular the pattern of the floor tiles can be seen through the fabric of the maid’s skirt.
On the wall behind the two men hangs a map showing the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands. A painting has been placed above the fireplace but it is a little too large for its intended vantage point and so it seems that it has been wedged between the mantelpiece and the roof beams — slightly at an angle, the effect a little overbearing. The picture has been identified as the Education of the Virgin and its presence conveys a moralising lesson which contrasts with the leisured levity of the group gathered around the table. Perhaps the presence of shards from a broken pipe and a scrap of paper littering the floor is intended to reinforce this message.
In general de Hooch is not noted for heavy handed didactic symbolism but occasionally he employed the device (often used by others) of a picture within a picture to make a point. Of course, this was a favourite contrivance of the great Vermeer who almost certainly knew de Hooch during the years he lived in Vermeer’s home town of Delft. Together they represented the apogee of the Delft School and after de Hooch left Delft in 1661 Vermeer refined de Hooch’s twin stylistic canons — the use of naturalistic lighting effects together with a consummate command of perspective — to mould his own unsurpassed technique.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1656 Bartolomé Esteban Murillo: St Ildefonsus receiving the Chasuble, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
c1657 Rembrandt: Portrait of Titus, his son, London, The Wallace Collection
c1660 Francisco de Zurbaran: The Girlhood of the Virgin, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum