Exhibitions: He looks like a lot of fun, but he's no Vermeer

Pieter de Hooch

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Two of the world's oldest public museums, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Wadsworth Atheneum, have collaborated in the first monographic exhibition devoted to the Netherlandish painter . He was a near contemporary of Vermeer, with whom he shares the modest yet resonant repertoire of subjects characteristic of the school of Delft. De Hooch bears a quite famous name, but Peter Sutton of the Wadsworth Atheneum, who has devised and catalogued this retrospective, is right to suggest that few of us have a firm knowledge of his career.

We all, of course, know and probably love de Hooch's Courtyard in Delft with a Woman and Child, for this is the picture which best represents the artist in the National Gallery. It's a disappointment of the Dulwich exhibition to find that the Trafalgar Square painting is rivalled by only a handful of other works, like Two Soldiers and a Woman Drinking in a Courtyard, which belongs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. All in all, our understanding of de Hooch is greatly augmented by this retrospective, while one's enjoyment of his art remains at about the same level.

Or falls below that level. There are many dull, repetitious and perfunctory works on display. Peter Sutton admits that there are some paintings he cannot include in a dignified travelling exhibition because they are of such poor quality. On the whole, such canvases date from the years of de Hooch's decline, the decade before his death in 1684. "De Hooch's final descent is shocking," Sutton writes, and reveals that the painter died in the Amsterdam lunatic asylum. So his later artistic judgment may have been clouded by misfortunes of the mind. None the less, all through the exhibition there are paintings that appear to be journeyman's work. And even one or two that may not have come from de Hooch's hand (I think of catalogue numbers 2, 3 and 7). De Hooch is the sort of artist who tempts historians into "optimistic attributions", as they are known in the trade. He lacks the spirit that gives an ultimate fineness to pictorial expression. He shows mastery on many occasions, but he was not a master.

It's hard on any painter to be compared with Vermeer. In de Hooch's case we have to do so, simply because of the two artists' somewhat parallel careers and similarity of subject matter. De Hooch is evidently a coarser painter, with an earthbound temperament. The comparison may be tested by looking at another painting from the British National Gallery, A Woman Drinking with Two Men, and a Serving Woman. Here is a wide domestic interior, tiles on the floor, leaded lights to the left, a map on the wall, a religious canvas above the fireplace: just the things we always find in a Vermeer. Yet the spirit of this painting is quite different. Vermeer makes us wonder at things we thought we knew well. De Hooch describes, but he does not illuminate.

Classic Dutch painting, whether of landscape or of interiors, always has a beautiful sensitivity to light. De Hooch knew how to paint light, though he is inclined to be abrupt. The illusion that a particular kind of natural light belongs to eternity rather than to the hour was one of Vermeer's gifts to humankind. It must be said that de Hooch could not begin to imagine such a cool and dawn-like sublimity. On the other hand - and I count this as a virtue - he's rather good with boors and wenches. Scenes of carousing soldiers and easy-going women are often written off as low art. That may be justified. But the Dulwich show reminds us that low art has its heights. In their own way, de Hooch's drinkers and cardplayers are happily and adequately realised. He is always genial, never censorious, and gives us a good view of democratic life that many people enjoy. There ought to be more paintings of this sort. What a tragedy it was that evangelical Victorianism immediately stomped on the beginnings of a British school of tavern painting!

The founder of a school of ale-house art would have been David Wilkie, who had a fondness for de Hooch and helped to bring some of his paintings to Britain. The informative catalogue documents such matters, for this is an art historian's exhibition. Punters who go to Dulwich expecting creative wonders will be disappointed. There's one moment in the exhibition when de Hooch suddenly seems to operate on a different plane. After a wall of tavern pictures we come to the 1657-8 A Merry Company with Two Men and Two Women. Merry they may be, but this is altogether a more serious painting. Its inspiration comes from Vermeer. Perhaps de Hooch had decided to follow, almost abjectly, a man whom he knew to be a superior artist.

Not consistently and not for long, however. The next paintings are agreeable and sometimes amusing without being complete. De Hooch is a good painter of parts of a picture, but not so good at making his whole canvas unique and consistent. Bits of one painting could easily be transferred to another: a brick wall here might go there, a tiled passage might be on the left or the right of any picture, seated matrons and their children - always stereotyped, for de Hooch was no portraitist - might sit and play in one picture or the next. It's noticeable that the artist's interest in "correct" perspective did not help him to make his paintings more than a jumbled collection of their parts. But don't overlook one of his most achieved pictures, Mother and Child with its Head in her Lap. The mother is looking for nits, but the sweetness of the painting's conception takes a hold on the spectator before one realises the nature of its subject.

: Dulwich Picture Gallery, SE21 (0181 693 5254), to 5 November.