In a brick courtyard filled with hazy sunlight, we find three generations of a family assembled and posed with studied informality. The stern-looking elders sit at a table before a classical arbour. Dressed in black and white, they are the epitome of Protestant Dutch sobriety. One woman looks pointedly at the bearded man (her husband?), while the other sits demurely with hands folded on her lap and a dog (a sign of fidelity) at her feet. To the left, stands a middle-aged couple, also somberly attired, however the wife’s dress is embellished with fashionable stripes and she lifts her skirt to reveal a bright red under-dress. A younger man, looking uncomfortable in a stylish light grey outfit and conspicuously modish shoes and a second man descending the stairs, appear to represent the younger generation. While clearly a respectably modest bourgeois family their rich attire attests to their prosperity (black was in fact the costliest of all dyes).
This large and ambitious painting by Pieter de Hooch, a pioneer of the Delft School and one of the most innovative painters of Holland’s Golden Age, is like nothing that came before. His naturalistic portrayal of a middle class family in an open courtyard is unprecedented. Its prominent perspective derives from earlier architectural painting featuring views of palatial courtyards. Like these earlier designs, De Hooch’s painting features a long view across open outdoor spaces with the architecture providing the framework for the figures. However, De Hooch adds large-scale figures and a domestic theme, balancing strict architectural perspective with a homey naturalism.
The brick floor in the foreground extends through a doorway to a second courtyard - where we see another man with his back to us - to a distant open red door. Beyond are typical Dutch gabled roofs as well as the spire of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft. Though not identified the setting recalls the area of Delft (around the Binnenwatersloot) where De Hooch’s in-laws lived and where he too may have resided. Could this be De Hooch’s relatives? Or perhaps a neighbouring family?
Some scholars suggest it is a marriage portrait. A hint of this is the fruit displayed in the painting. The elderly women picking up grapes could be interpreted as a symbol of virginity or of motherhood, considered as a second type of virginity within the sacred confines of marriage (a notion common in contemporary Dutch morality books, such as those by Jacob Cats). Fruit is also associated with fertility – Psalm 128 refers to the wife as the fruitful vine at the side of one’s house. The younger female holds a piece of fruit before her belly (is she pregnant?) while the older woman sits besides an arbour with withered vines.
As the painting is undated, a date of c.1657–60 has been suggested on the basis of style: It was in these years that de Hooch first perfected his command of outdoor space, atmosphere and silver tonality, which made his light-filled courtyards so new and innovative.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1658 Nicolas Poussin: Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
c1658 Johannes Vermeer: The Milkmaid, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
1659 Diego Velasquez: Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum