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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas