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

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album