There's no place like home

Pieter de Hooch was a 17th-century artist who turned his sharp eye on to the homely, humdrum life of the household and the tavern and bathed it in a light so sympathetic that his pictures have an almost religious quality.
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NOT A lot is known. He lived from 1629 to 1684. His father was a brick-layer. He worked in Delft and Amsterdam. He never made much. He married and had seven children. He spent his last years in a madhouse. Nowadays, about 170 paintings are assigned to his name. Don't say it like "smooch", say it like "croak". Pieter de Hooch.

The 40 paintings now gathered from around the world at the Dulwich Picture Gallery are billed as de Hooch's first ever one-man show, which, if true, suggests curatorial mischance more than anything else. De Hooch has never been a neglected artist, and he's hardly obscure. His works star in any round-up of Dutch 17th-century art; he's the great homebody of the Golden Age. Still, shown in quantity, they make a revelation.

The earliest pictures here, from his early twenties, are hearty drinking scenes. They feature the sort of characters who, in a Larkin poem, get called Jan van Hogspeuw and Dirk Dogstoerd. They go "cheers, mate" to the viewer - but the modern viewer can't easily return the compliment. They seldom seem funny or fun. In fact, de Hooch doesn't have his heart in it. His versions aren't very rude or dissolute. And after a while things quieten down and smarten up further, and you start to think of Vermeer.

Vermeer is the obvious comparison throughout, the more famous artist whose work de Hooch's can best be defined against. De Hooch's scenes are always less still, less enclosed, less mesmeric. A picture such as A Merry Company with Two Men and Two Women - you might call it Vermeer between takes. It has Vermeer's intense single light source, but not his intense human encounter. The poses have been dropped, people relax, the protagonists flirt and drink at their ease. Well, it's natural to do the comparison that way, but probably it was de Hooch, the slightly older artist, who inspired Vermeer. You're looking at the kind of scene Vermeer realised he could do something with.

But in the Delft years, de Hooch was an innovator. He made the home, the Dutch bourgeois household, its front rooms and back yards, a subject of new importance. In the yard scenes, what's exciting is the sense of something like social realism, or reportage: a servant crosses a courtyard carrying a jug and a bucket, averting her eyes from the shaft of sun that hits her face; a woman lays out bleached linen on the ground. These feel like slices of daily life, snapshots from the past. Indeed, they look quite like photographs. On the other hand, they're moral subjects too. What are they about? Cleaning.

Whatever activity they depict, you might call all de Hooch's domestic scenes advertisements for housework, ideal home exhibitions. Or you might elevate this, and call them lessons in domestic virtue - which, of course, means female virtue. His protagonists are almost always women: the housewife and her servants, often with children, often nursing mothers. And if we, in our turn, are going to moralise on these pictures, we may feel torn. They have very clear and strict ideas about a woman's place. But they are also sympathetically woman-centred, and they exalt these fairly humble homes into holy places, baffled in an Annunciation light.

Light is de Hooch's forte. He sees how light scatters and bounces, how it gets everywhere - raking the grain of a wooden door, sparkling off ceramic floor tiles, bending through glass, striking a reflective gleam off objects apparently in darkness. Look at the picture called The Bedroom. These rooms are echo-chambers for the day, and, of course, with its more than virtuoso effect it makes equations. Sunlight is the good housewife's friend, the bad one's foe, showing off the shine of scrubbed and polished surfaces, showing up its absence. Cleanliness is next to godliness, a symbol of spiritual purity. Light is divine.

It's not just light that de Hooch delivers so brilliantly, but also an overall sense of lucidity. The spaces of his rooms - he makes them felt as cubic volumes, contained by planes in three dimensions. Their inhabitants - people, furniture, propped brooms, animals - stand on the chequer-board floors as space-markers, with tangible space around them. He makes parts felt, too. The scenes have a texture of construction; they stress bits, brickwork, floor tiles, wall tiles, shutters, panes, components fitted together as if from a kit, which also form beautiful patterns: a place for everything, everything in its place, everything right and clear.

His work can strike a modernist note. These arrangements of flat-on rectangles - doorways, windows, bed-frames, pictures-on-walls - make de Hooch look like the ancestor of de Stijl, Mondrian and Co. See, for instance, the painted wooden shutter that swings in on the left of Courtyard in Delft, a gratuitous, pure-form flag of scarlet. But this emphasis overlooks de Hooch's equally insistent receding perspectives, which draw the eye so often through an open doorway into the room beyond.

These glimpses are de Hooch's most piercing trick, (and A Mother and Child with its Head in her Lap is probably its most wonderful example). The room in the foreground is usually quite shady. The room we see through into is filled with light - and filled also with promise. The device feels very deep, I think because it taps into early feelings about the bigness of the world opening out beyond our vision; it's not surprising that Proust gives it a mention. To compare the painter with a very different contemporary: in these glimpses de Hooch creates "yonders" as powerful as the eye-losing distances in the landscapes of Claude Lorrain. But at the same time it's an absolutely everyday magic, child's play. The promised land is just the room next door.

The spatial drama is so strong that you almost wish the human beings away. De Hooch's people are certainly hit and miss - sometimes there's very finely observed adult-child body-language, with a youngster impatiently tugging the arm of a grown-up who's still talking to someone; sometimes they're pretty wooden. You do need the people, though. Empty rooms would become uncanny; you'd start to think of unseen things lurking, and that would be wrong.

But one reason the later work done in Amsterdam strikes less strongly than the earlier work is that it's more people-heavy, more focused on human dramas. The world also gets posher, the compositions more formal, and in a sense messier - you feel there are things that the Delft housewives would have swiftly tidied up. But in fact, it's just that the lighting is more dingy.

There are some spectacular set-pieces from this period. The textures are opulent. In The Interior of the Burgomasters' Council Chamber in the Amsterdam Town Hall with Visitors, the people stand grandly around the floor like pieces in a game of human chess, while above them a vast swag of scarlet curtain hangs in top left, occupying a whole quarter of the picture surface. But what has been lost is the luminous and perspicuous revelation of space and construction.

Every paragraph above might have had in it somewhere the phrase "unlike Vermeer". But one last general comparison may be some use. Vermeer was once called the Sphynx of Delft. He offered a double mystery. Little was known of his life, while the enigma of his art - so charged, but so reserved - made it natural to seek an answer in his psyche (and people have made big meals out any tit-bit of personal information that does turn up). But no one would call de Hooch a sphynx. His life is equally obscure, but this doesn't feel like a lack. It feels fine. It's hard to be at all interested in his personality. His works don't show attitude, and they don't offer the sort of intensity that makes you want to go soul- searching, either.

The clincher is the madhouse business. There is only the bare record of a fact. But with so many artists, it's a fad we would try to make something of. We'd eagerly spot symptoms. A madness story like that would be bound, somehow, to affect our view of their work (and with one Dutch artist, of course, it's been known to take over completely). But with de Hooch, there is nothing for the story to get a purchase on. There is no sign of anything like madness or excess psychic pressure. There is wonder, but no mystery. His vision is transparent. He makes the world clear.

Pieter de Hooch: Dulwich Picture Gallery, College Road, London SE21; until 15 November. Closed Mondays. Admission: pounds 5, concessions pounds 2.50