Like most museums, the Wadsworth Atheneum has a Web site -- www.hartnet.org/~wadsworth/ -- but it's primitive, offering but a sketchy rundown on the collections and a mere paragraph, sans illustrations, on special exhibitions. Here you'll get some lean info on the Pieter de Hooch exhibition, which is touted as the first one-man show of the Dutch artist. For additional info ring the place up -- (860) 278-2670 -- for one of those high-speed, prolix recorded phone messages, which after several redialings provides excellent driving directions.
The landmark show of this "pioneer" of the 17th-century Delft School was put together by Wadsworth Atheneum director Peter C. Sutton in cooperation with the Dulwich Art Gallery in London. Sutton, who is the reigning expert on the painter, also compiled the catalogue. I grabbed it right away, had a cup of coffee, and soaked up some de Hooch expertise, mine not being what you might call lofty.
The best feature of the catalogue is the full color illustrations. The layman may find the text far too scholarly -- even puzzling. What, for example, does this mean? "De Hooch was one of the first to celebrate domestic virtue in a country that had the resources to make the nuclear family its primary social unit and moral forum."
A timeline explaining activity in Holland and the rest of the world would have been enlightening. Sutton might have considered a description of the condition of the paintings, or some clues as to levels of quality in this type of art.
Despite these shortcomings, he is eloquent and honest about the nature of de Hooch's art, "In the late 1650s he was a true innovator, creating a new type of genre painting with unprecedented spatial order and naturalism.… The view … through an open doorway or window became de Hooch's signature motif but is only the most conspicuous expression of his unprecedented mastery of continuous indoor and outdoor space."
And as for the link between Delfters Johannes Vermeer and de Hooch, "The exact nature of the relationship between de Hooch and Vermeer is unknown … it seems probable that Vermeer's shift from large-scale biblical and mythological subjects to cabinet-size genre scenes and cityscapes was at least partly inspired by de Hooch." And, "De Hooch's name fails to appear anywhere in 17th-century literature…."
The bottom line I got from the catalogue is that de Hooch is a terrific minor master with none of the technical sparkle, grand humanity or infinite and serene mystery of Vermeer. He cooked up some deft painterly tricks of light, perspective and interior-exterior contrasts and applied them ceaselessly. The minutiae of mankind is his forte and he records that brilliantly. He is like the Juan Gris of his day, while Vermeer is the Picasso. In his works, what you see is what you see. Although you can "Rorschach" up all sorts of little dramas, it's futile to try to extract profound significance. But what you see in the truly hot numbers is well worth a trip to Hartford, Ct.
The show has 40 out of approximately 170 total known works. Thankfully Sutton, in a rare demonstration of curatorial self-control, decided not to throw in a bunch of what he calls the later, very weak works which de Hooch churned out in his last decade on his way to the insane asylum in Amsterdam where he died in misery. Yet, one late feeble work would have been interesting, at least in the catalogue.
Here are the ones you've got to see:
The early Rotterdam and Haarlem works are forgettable, yet one is worth a glance -- A Seated Soldier with a Standing Serving Woman. The signature cool, lovely light is not yet in evidence but the beer glass held by the zaftig young lady, her expressive face, and the polished breastplate by the young guardsman are smashing passages of paint. That silvery armor looks like the pulsating stomach of some love-stricken firefly.
The mature Delft period 1658-1660 is when he put together his full formula and executed his most compelling works. The bulk of the exhibition is devoted to this material. A knockout is the Woman Nursing an Infant from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Everything about this placid scene of love is exceptional, from the tenderness of the nursing mother, to the subdued light, to the glistening ceramics and goblet displayed on the mantelpiece.
A Courtyard in Delft with a Woman and Child from London's National Gallery is the delicious painting of 1658 that boosted de Hooch's reputation in modern times and may be the earliest known dated work that combines all of de Hooch's deft artistic trickery. The viewer is guided g us from the outdoors, through a doorway into an interior, then outdoors into the distance. The details are exquisite -- the gentle faces of the adoring mother and child, the marvelously leached bricks of the back wall, the clever perspective of the tiles, and the silvery sheen of the floor in the corridor. The concatenation of open doors and the window shutter is tremendously satisfying.
Hanging next to this is a most puzzling variation today in a private collection, Figures Drinking in a Courtyard, also signed and dated 1658. It's mentioned and illustrated in Sutton's introduction as figure 25 but not given a catalogue entry. We'll call it figure 4. There is an overall hesitancy and querulous feeling in it that contrasts dramatically with the National Gallery's work, figure 3. Where are the legs of the guy with the pipe and where do those leaves that cover the tablet (the original from the Hieronymusdael cloister still exists) come from? In the London picture there is a natural, logical source for the branches that add so much to the space.
Start counting the minute differences between what at first glance seems to be the exact same details in different pictures, and you'll end up, as I did, with a list of dozens of inexplicable variations. In almost every case the details in figure 4 are rendered a bit more precisely but far more lifelessly than those in figure 3. Start with the cloister tablet which is more accurate in figure 4, particularly in the composition of the lines. Compare the splendidly leached brick wall in figure 3 with the same passage in figure 4 -- the latter lacks energy. The same is true with the arches the shape of their bricks, and the treatment of the mortar joints on the wall above the arches, the precise shape of the wooden planks of the red shutter, the shutter's locks, the sculptured face in the keystone of the arch and the signature and the date on the masonry which in the private picture lacks the abbreviation for Anno.
Is figure 4 a later copy or even a faked-up pastiche? Unlikely, for the ancient history of both paintings seems sound. But what's going on? Sutton's take is that it was the first attempt, much improved upon by de Hooch later on. I wonder. I worry over the multiple weaknesses of the Figures Drinking in a Courtyard but cannot bring myself to believe it's phony.
Best in the show is Two Women in a Courtyard, which is virtually in mint condition. The reason is likely to be because it comes from the Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It's well known that serious collectors look upon the Queen's collection as the benchmark of quality. Most impressive is the magically intense light.
Of the Amsterdam works (de Hooch moved there around 1660) Merry Company of around 1663-1665 has it all -- lambent light, action and fabulous details, including the amusing painting over the hearth showing the screaming baby Ganymede being lifted away by Jupiter in the guise of an eagle.
A Couple Walking in the Citizens' Hall of the Amsterdam Town Hall of around 1663-1665, from the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg shows the stunning Klieg light of the sun smacking across the couple and the pilaster like a meteorite flaring through the atmosphere.
Finally, A Man Reading a Letter to a Woman, is a late one of 1670-74 done shortly before poor de Hooch was thrown into bedlam. This is a truly gripping work (the only one that comes close to Vermeer) and maybe the only time you encounter a vivid psychological awareness in the face of the attractive and intriguing young woman who is concentrating so convincingly.
How would I have handled an exhibition of Pieter de Hooch? Very differently from the way the Wadsworth has. I see no reason to shape an exhibition intended for the general public like a scholarly treatise -- it's tedious and unnecessarily costly. The Hartford show suffers considerably from this scholarly overload. I'd have chosen only about 25 pictures and published the rest of the 40 in the catalogue, along with a couple of the weak paintings of his last years. I'd have also added a Rembrandt and a Vermeer in the show.
Of course I'd have reworked the Web site for the show. There'd be a far better run through of the highlights of the permanent collections, emphasizing the fantastic decorative arts, the invigorating Piero di Cosimo, the best Zurbaran in America (Saint Serapion), the authentic Caravaggio and the smashing Bernardo Strozzi.
Practicalities would include not only the maps on how to get there, opening times, admission charges, and the fine history of the institution but also key info on nearby local restaurants (including the best, a sensational Japanese one, Ichiban, in the Piranesi Prison of a subterranean mall across the street), what's in the bookshop (with a 20 percent discount for showing a coupon you've downloaded from the Web site) and how to become a member.
My exhibition pages of the Web site would illustrate, in addition to every work exhibited with copious details, Sutton's complete Catalogue Raisonné of 1980 plus additions and a time line. There ought to be the major reviews -- Grace Glueck in the New York Times and Salon magazine's critic. (Hey, they can even link to this page for the run of the show.) I might even include a section devoted to which de Hoochs are on the market with price estimates.
I'm sure the Wadsworth Atheneum -- locally a most neglected and underappreciated museum -- will get moving one of these days. It's the first art museum in the country -- 1842, I recall -- but now it's lagging a bit behind even the laggards.
"Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684)" is on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum from Dec. 18, 1998-Feb. 28, 1999.
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.