Thursday, March 8, 2012

Pieter de Hooch

Pieter de Hooch, Portrait of a Family in a Courtyard in Delft (Detail), 1658-60.

Friends, I have positively itched to tell you of this painting over the last week! Have you, readers, ever experienced this irrepressible social urge — perhaps late in the evening, somewhat dazed, when your mind leaps to some unforeseen connection between something long beneath your nose and some other circumstance? (No doubt Pieter Jansz van Asch did!)

Well, even if you have not, certainly you will understand the frisson I felt upon spotting this painting — once so well known to me, but later forgotten — in a used copy of Peter Sutton's now-classic book on de Hooch. Let me go back. I spent last Friday afternoon in Leiden, where I was present for a young colleague's thesis defense at the University. After toasting his success and sneaking a handful of stroopwaffels, I strolled through the streets of my youth. Stopping at a used bookstore not far from the Harvey House, I pulled down Sutton's monograph, hoping it would serve as a gift for my young friend, the newly minted academic.

A half-eaten stroopwaffel dropped from my hand when I opened the book at random: here was de Hooch's Portrait of a Family in a Courtyard in Delft, exactly as I had seen it so many times before, but here, nostalgic as I felt, I looked down at this portion of it and saw myself at a family gathering, just like this one, so many times before. Where de Hooch painted the family's teenage son at slight remove from other figures, standing almost sullenly in his Baja poncho (so popular among young students of the age), I saw myself in a garden in Leiden, 1970, in a poncho of my own, thinking of art. De Hooch's dog, so much like my own dear Knop, has stolen someone's hacky sack. The women to the left, de Hooch's aunt, holds a fine Delft bong and lifts the hem of her skirt to show a fine silk under-skirt, emblematic of the upper-middle-class of the time, much as my own aunt, in a Polaroid I have of us standing so like this, with dear Knop at our feet, would have flaunted her Silhouette sunglasses. We stood exactly in this way, so many years distant from de Hooch's family! I was astonished.

Being sure to wipe the stroopwaffel crumbs from the book before I purchased it hurriedly, I felt electric. That night, in my guest room, I played through both sides of Live Grape while writing what turned out to be a very long note to my friend, recounting this same story, on the title pages of Sutton's book. I wonder how many, through the long years, have looked at de Hooch's painting and felt the past rise up like a haze, enveloping them!


Hermann Wundrum said...

Jan - de Hooch, without fail, raises the hairs on my neck. I have never had the fortune of shaking the feeling from my first viewing of his Couple with Parrot. The perspective is chilling, placing the viewer in the shadows, watching quietly, breathlessly from another room. The sensation, of myself being watched, is just too much! Especially after having enjoyed a stack of stroopwaffels with my afternoon tea.

Jan Peeters said...

Indeed, I have been revisiting his paintings fervently — I looked at nothing else on the train home — since becoming reacquainted with those early, haunting, charming pictures. But I must warn you: consuming too many stroopwaffels gives one a different odd sensation altogether!