A dog sniffs at a heap of dead birds on the floor, but the focus of this quiet scene seems to be on the young woman cradling her baby. She looks down at the creatures, her expression shuttered. The picture was originally quite different: beneath the birds, which were added during the nineteenth century, is the figure of a wounded man, probably a soldier.
A series of rectangles – some open, some closed – define the space and give a glimpse of the fascination and skill in the use of perspective that became central to de Hooch’s work. On the right, clothes draped over a wooden plank catch the light, giving depth to the shadowy area behind it. To the left, sketchily painted objects hang on another wooden half wall; behind them, a web of narrow beams angle upwards to give height to the ceiling overhead.
Early in his career Pieter de Hooch painted several scenes set in stables, and they share the quiet tranquillity for which he became known and appreciated. They displays his interest in architectural detail and the unifying property of light, as well as a still, enigmatic quality unique to him.
On the right of this scene, the clothes draped over a wooden plank catch the light, giving depth to the shadowy area behind it. The entrance is a fretwork of geometric shapes, including a pane of stained glass with a central motif of a cloaked figure, perhaps of religious meaning. To the left, sketchily painted objects hang on another wooden half wall; behind them, a web of narrow beams angle upwards to give great height to the ceiling overhead.
In the foreground a dog sniffs at a heap of dead birds on the floor, but the focus seems to be on the young woman cradling her baby. She glances at the creatures, her expression shuttered. But she wasn't always looking at a pile of birds – the picture was overpainted in the nineteenth century. Beneath the birds lays the figure of a wounded man, probably a soldier finding shelter in the barn. The man seemingly squatting to examine his catch is, in the original picture, possibly tending the soldier’s wounds; the woman’s expression may read rather more sympathetically with the change of story. As the painting appears today, the figure coming through the doorway is unexplained. In the original, however, he perhaps becomes a doctor, a servant bringing food or medicine, or – in view of the stained glass pane – even a religious figure.
This device of a figure in an open doorway in the background is one that de Hooch repeated many times throughout his work (as in, for example, A Woman and a Maid in a Courtyard). It was one way of catching the viewer’s interest and prompting us to ask questions, but it was also a way of giving perspective to the picture. A series of rectangles, some open, some closed, also define the space here and give a glimpse of de Hooch’s fascination and skill in the use of perspective, which became a hallmark of his work.
De Hooch has here kept his palette low-key – browns, greys and ochre with small touches of dusty pinks and reds to enliven the picture: the man’s hat, the young woman’s sleeve and the incomer’s jacket, visible above the cloak swathed round his shoulders. Brightest of all, and almost exactly in the centre of the picture, is the small patch of glowing red that seems to stem from the baby’s shawl.
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