Inspired by a Dutch master's moral moment

From best-selling author Deborah Moggach's talk at the Dulwich Picture Gallery as part of the Gerrit Dou Evening Lecture Series

Share

It all started three years ago, when I bought a Dutch painting at a Christie's auction. Dated 1660, it shows a woman getting ready to go out. Her maid holds up a necklace; her manservant brings a glass of wine. It's a typical genre painting in the manner of Vermeer or De Hooch - a subtle domestic tableau, a stilled moment of drama. The figures are caught at a moment of decision - should the woman be going out? Where is she going and what is she thinking? Blink, and she would move. The painting is framed by a curtain, pulled back, which both admits and excludes the viewer.

It all started three years ago, when I bought a Dutch painting at a Christie's auction. Dated 1660, it shows a woman getting ready to go out. Her maid holds up a necklace; her manservant brings a glass of wine. It's a typical genre painting in the manner of Vermeer or De Hooch - a subtle domestic tableau, a stilled moment of drama. The figures are caught at a moment of decision - should the woman be going out? Where is she going and what is she thinking? Blink, and she would move. The painting is framed by a curtain, pulled back, which both admits and excludes the viewer.

I wanted to walk into the painting and join her and her colluding servants. So I delved into the golden age of Dutch art and wrote a novel about the woman, Tulip Fever. I was enraptured by these paintings, which, while extolling domestic tranquillity, also suggest transgression. They unsettle us, subtly, by their hints. In this marvellous Gerrit Dou exhibition, there's a painting of a lady similar to mine. Dou, however, hints rather more heavily that the woman is up to no good. The woman sits at a mirror, and her reflected face challenges the viewer. The mirror is a symbol of corruption and vanity, and just in case we're in doubt, there's an empty birdcage hanging on the wall. The caged bird was a symbol of marital fidelity, and in this painting the bird has flown. Empty mussel shells were also used as an indication of fled virtue.

The Dutch were great moralisers. Delight in wealth and beauty was tempered by reminders that life is transitory - the caterpillar in the flower painting, the boy blowing bubbles. Dou's portrait of the artist in his studio is filled with vanitas emblems - a skull, an hourglass. While a globe, a book and a sword symbolise earthly achievements, these other spectres of mortality tell us that nothing lasts, only paintings.

I wanted to explore this ambiguity. Jan Steen's rollicking tavern scenes, for instance, revel in their graphic depictions of drunkenness and sexual excess, whilst also wagging a puritanical finger. Steen implicates himself further by including a portrait of himself. It's like The Sun telling us about a celebrity's shame. We all have that split within us, and nowhere is it more graphically illustrated than in these moralising celebrations of life above and below stairs.

In the 17th century there was an extraordinary flowering of Dutch painting. The Calvinists whitewashed the churches, banning holy images from them. Painters turned their talents to exploring life in all its rich variety - streetscapes and seascapes; still lifes; merry companies; low-life tavern and brothel scenes. My favourites are the domestic dramas that suggest film stills, for they are lit like photographs and lead one to speculate what is about to happen when the men and women move into the other rooms. The range of subject-matter is staggering. In no other period of history has life been passed down to us in all its detail - what people wore, what they ate, how they furnished their houses. One hardly needs to open a history book; it's all there in the paintings.

People bought paintings in huge numbers. Even the humbler homes had paintings on their walls. The Dutch republic was awash with capital. It had a huge empire and a burgeoning middle class; it was literate, tolerant and sophisticated; and there was a thriving art market. The most expensive paintings were those showing grand historical or religious subjects.

But even while the Dutch embellished their homes with works of art, they also felt, in Z Herbert's words, that a painter's task was always to be aware of his, and their, mortality.

"I admired how fiercely they fought for a life slightly longer than the one for which they were destined. They protected themselves with fashion, tailors' accessories, a fancy ruffle... any detail that would allow them to last a little longer before they - and we as well - are engulfed by theblack background."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron visiting a primary school last year  

The only choice in schools is between the one you want and the ones you don’t

Jane Merrick
Zoë Ball says having her two children was the best thing ever to happen to her  

Start a family – you’ll never have to go out again

John Mullin
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn