Pieter De Hooch – Woman with a child in a Pantry, 1656-60
Pieter de Hooch was a Dutch painter at the same time as Vermeer and known for his views of interiors often containing glimpses of other rooms or courtyards through open doors and windows. Dutch genre paintings were favoured to convey moral message (1) but de Hooch’s were simple scenes of domestic bliss, perhaps their purpose was to show the result of a living a devout life.
As the simplistic title suggests, Woman with a Child in a Pantry depicts a humble domestic scene. We see a basic interior with two figures, a woman and a child, conducting a routine interaction. The woman offers the child a small jug, presumably to drink from and the child reaches up somewhat hesitantly, it seems to me, as if the contents is perhaps unfamiliar. The woman’s indulgent smile reinforces this. Such a simple scene of familial communication. The woman’s caring expression makes us smile in return, we see a domestic idyll, the kind of household we would like to be part of.
I noted that the dress of the two figures is very different and I think it has been used as a tool to differentiate the woman who is perhaps a servant of the household while the little girl, with her fine and intricate clothes is the child of the house. This is supported by the location of the scene in the pantry and the underside of the stairs visible in the roof, showing we are downstairs, traditionally the servants realm. Despite this, the relationship between the two appears to be one of affection and trust.
Other clues to the status of the house owner lie in the glimpse of a man’s portrait on the wall of the room through the door. Much detail has been included in this painting and thus it seems significant in its inclusion. We wonder if this is the master of the house, and the father of this child. He is of course busy working at some other location but we are left with this reminder that even in his absence his presence is still felt in this otherwise feminine environment. Such a small detail anchors these women in their traditional roles as subordinates and the positioning of the painting in a room that opens to the outdoors, links him with the masculine world outside world.
Gender representation in Dutch genre art is discussed in Kettering’s review. “We have come to associate seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting with scenes of refined domestic contentment, intimate social behaviour, and quiet prosperity, usually as defined by women” (2). She goes on to examine the appearance of males in Dutch paintings: “Despite the importance of the idea of family for national self-definition, representation of the entire family was rare; husbands scarcely ever appear in Pieter de Hooch’s images, and never in Vermeer” (2). So here we may not have a male figure present but he is hinted at in the painting on the wall.
The painting on the wall, together with the girls dress and the presence of a servant makes us realise that he must be quite wealthy to have these possessions, further elevating his status (and demoting the females who are by extension “owned”).
Further implying the status of the owner is the number of rooms in the house. We are told that this is the pantry and thus the family rooms which will be grander, will lie in another area of the house. The glimpses we get of the other areas, stairs, rooms and cupboards, indicate a complex architectural space. Exactly the same interior has been depicted in another of De Hooch’s interiors: “Woman with a Baby in Her Lap, and a Small Child” from 1658 which not only shows the same room but also the same painting on the wall.
Think about how this relates to Alpers’ observations on pictorial codes in C17th Dutch genre painting. She argues that a C17th painting is not so much a window on the world as a system of lines determining where objects and figures are to be placed on the flat plane.)
de Hooch’s works from the 1650s may have been influenced by the work of Carel Fabritius, and his studies on perspective (4). Fabritius was a painter himself and studied under Rembrandt in the 1640s. He is known for his illusionistic perspective effects and he is said to have made the perspective box (5). He was in Delft from 1651 and is described as having led the Delft School of which de Hooch and Vermeer were part of (6). de Hooch has created an interplay of light and shade by casting shadows and including highlights such as the shining tiled floor. This, in turn, creates depth and helps to describe the shape of the room.
Vermeer also focused on the domestic interior as a subject for his work. In a short review of Dutch 17th Century Genre painting, the difference between Vermeer and de Hooch in their approach is discussed. “Peter de Hooch creates a less mysterious atmosphere. His interiors are elaborate space constructions opening up vistas from room to room to room, or from the courtyard or the street into the house, for our inspection” (7). The author goes on to analyse other differences: “The space is further complicated by the way he uses strong contrasts of light and shade. Unlike Vermeer’s cold light, de Hooch creates a warmer effect, further emphasized by the warmer range of colours that he uses…..The subject matter is homelier too an unlike Vermeer with his solitary and silent figures, de Hooch includes children, the family, their friends, their servants, all busily engaged in enjoying life.”
The domesticity depicted in de Hooches images may have had deeper meaning in 17th century Holland. Schama (1980) points out that
“any consideration of the image of women in Dutch culture is inevitably an inspection of male responses towards them” (10).
He continues by saying that these images of domestic bliss were actually a “fetish of domesticity”. The Dutch were very conscious of religious and moral expectations and this visible domesticity was their demonstration of virtue.
“children are shown watching with quiet intentness the performance of diurnal tasks – the preparation of vegetables – or are bidden to prayer bfore a meal, the emblems of their instincts, broken toys, scattered on the floor.” (10)
Eduoard Vuillard – Madame André Wormser and her Children, 1926-27
This interior, painted almost 300 years after de Hooch’s is not dissimilar in theme. Both depict a simple domestic scene that was commonplace in their own eras. Both show a maternal world and women dominate the image. However, with both there is an underlying reminder that the man of the household may not be present but his authority is felt.
The family are depicted in an elegantly furnished room. The clothes and decor is ultra fashionable (knee length skirts were recent styles). The viewer knows that the owner of this house is not only stylish but also wealthy to afford these recent additions. There are many paintings on the walls of this room, in elaborate gold frames. Some appear to be of landscapes, a modern subject of the impressionists and in fact were by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Roussel and Degas so the owner was indeed a collector of very modern art at the time and able to see the potential in these new artists that many rejected (8).
Vuillard is known for his interest in capturing they way the figures interact with their environment and with each other rather than a true likeness (12). He said, “I do not paint portraits, I paint people in their homes.” (14) Thus we know that the way the figures are all positioned is important to the composition.
The main figure of Madam Wormser, stands slightly apart from her children who are all located in a brightly lit part of the room, presumably from a window behind the viewer. She considers them in a thoughtful way, head tilted to one side, watching them at their occupations. They ignore her and one feels she is watching them with pride and love. Vuillard’s methods in placing the children in bright light emphasises their importance. One could imagine that Madame Wormser commissioned this paintings and requested that the children be the focus of the work. Some critics describe the the mothers pose as “complacent” and the relationships as “stiff”, that she wanted to display her children as showpieces (11). Although I can see why this would be, I think that this composition actually reflects a more natural scene. She is distanced because she is observing and it serves to separate her from the children and identify her as a person of importance. I don’t think this criticism would be attributed if it were the child’s father depicted in this way.
I’m not entirely sure that she would have been wholly please in the way Vuillard has depicted the girl reading in the foreground. Traditionally young women and girls where painted as miniature women with beautiful dresses and performing demure and ladylike past-times. This child is sitting in a very unladylike pose however and Vuillard has deliberately shown a true to life image of a young girl who is engrossed in reading and unaware and uncaring of societies expectations.
This painting is one of a series of group portraits with children including Madame Weil and Her Children, 1922-23 and Madame Jean Trarieux and Her Daughters.
We can also compare this work to a similar subject by Renoir that Vuillard would likely been aware of. Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children, painted in 1878 shows another family scene (if somewhat more twee in style). Similarly bedecked in the height of fashion, Madame Charpentier looks upon her children with maternal pride. They turn look at each other and the scene is of familial peace. Vuillard’s portraits are more realistic, both in composition and style. While Renoir intended a pleasing approach, Vuillard has used colour and positioning to relay a message about the family and location.
On further investigation I found that Vuillard often had a very different outlook on how women were portrayed in his work (9). Mother and Sister of the Artist from 1893. showed a very unusual depiction of the women in his life. In this work, his mother is shown seated in a distinctly masculine pose, hands on her legs looking definitely in control (12). His sister however is pushed to the side, blending in with the patterned background, as if holding on the wall and oddly bending at the waist. She looks at the viewer timidly out of the side of her eyes. We get the impression that Vuillard’s mother was a very dominant character and Sidlauskas goes on to describe Vuillard as being “emotionally reliant” on her (9). Perhaps this is why he has portrayed Madame Wormser in this almost-but-not-quite, dominant role, having witnessed his mother in the same way: dominant within the family but still subordinate to his father in name.
Madam Wormser contrasts greatly with the maternal scene in de Hooch’s and Vermeer’s time where the women were clearly defined as subordinate to the head of the house. In fact if it wasn’t for the title of Madame Wormser’s interior the viewer would assume that she herself is the owner and art collector as the viewer is given no other option.
From a technical viewpoint another difference between the two works is the methods used to paint them. de Hooch’s perspective and clean lines gives way to distortion in Vuillard’s, in order to accentuate the space the figures are in. de Hooch’s sombre palette is instead replaced with vibrant colour harmonies: strong greens with wonderful yellows and violets in the shadows. The brushwork is dappled and detail is sacrificed for the effects of colour and light. The emphasis is not on the room or its contents but rather the magic that he can work with paint to generate the room and contents.
Vuillard worked with a group of artists call the Nabis (Hebrew for “Prophets”) who were inspired by Gauguin and Japanese woodprints, using colour with more symbolic meaning rather than to replicate life (13). One wonders therefore if the colours he used in this work perhaps have another meaning. The greens and yellows dominate the paler clothing of the figures and generate an the impression of an oppressive room. Was Vuillard commenting on how he felt, and was it a comment on Madam Wormser or the room itself?
Vuillards technique is also worth commenting on. His distemper technique used a rabbit skin glue and dry pigment which had to be painted on quickly before it dried (15). This perhaps goes some way to explaining intricacy of the impressionistic brushstrokes which Vuillard employed to convey variations of texture.
While de Hooch wanted the viewers eye to move airily into other rooms and float around the house on the breeze from the window, Vuillards interior is confined to this one space, the doors are closed tightly and we imagine the atmosphere is stuffy and warm in the light streaming in.
I think with both of these paintings however the underlying narrative is the same. We see an uncomplicated moment in the life of the household. The parent or caregiver observes her charges indulgently and enjoys watching them doing the humblest tasks, a sentiment that resonates with all adults.
1. Rijksmuseum website – https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/overview/pieter-de-hooch, 21/03/15
9. Sidlauskas, S. (1997) Contesting Femininity: Vuillard’s Family Pictures. The Art Bulletin. Vol. 79, No. 1. 85-111
10. Schama, S. (1980) Wives and Wantons: Versions of Womanhood in 17th Century Dutch Art, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 5-13
11. Forster, M (2004) Private Papers. Vintage Random House: London
12. http://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/2477-2, 24/08/15
14. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ladylever/exhibitions/impressionists/madame_hessel.aspx, 24/08/15
15. Robbins, A & Stonor, K. (2012) Past, Present, Memories: Analysing Edouard Vuillard’s ‘La Terrasse at Vasouy. National Gallery Technical Bulletin Volume 33, Pp 82-112
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This entry has been updated following tutor comments July 2015