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

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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."

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