The young woman cradling her baby seems to be the focus of this quiet scene. She looks down at the dead birds, her expression shuttered but perhaps suggesting that while the man’s work is done, hers – plucking, gutting and cooking the animals – is just beginning.
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 a stable, and they share the quiet tranquillity for which he became known and appreciated. In them, he displays an interest in architectural detail and the unifying property of light, but with a still, enigmatic quality unique to him. This quality later permeates his images of young women in domestic settings, which often feature an unexplained figure in the background, like the one in this picture.
A dog sniffs at the heap of dead birds on the floor, but the focus seems to be on the young woman cradling her baby. She looks down at the creatures, her expression shuttered but perhaps suggesting that while the man’s work in killing the birds is done, hers – plucking, gutting and cooking them – is just beginning. Squatting on a log at her feet, the man examines his catch thoughtfully. He supports a bird with one hand and plays with a single loose feather with the other. Their costume implies that they are middle-class, quite affluent, yet at home in the stable with no servants to take care of the catch of birds. And who is the man coming in behind them, wrapped in a cloak, and what, if any, is his function in the household?
The device of a figure in an open doorway in the background is one that de Hooch repeated many times throughout his work – for instance, A Woman and a Maid in a Courtyard. It was one way of catching our interest and prompting us to ask questions, but was also a way of giving perspective to the picture. Here, a series of rectangles, some open, some closed, also define the space and give a glimpse of de Hooch’s fascination and skill in the use of perspective that became a hallmark of his work.
On the right, 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, a pane of stained glass with a central motif of a cloaked figure, perhaps of religious meaning, overhead. 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.
De Hooch has kept his palette low-key here – browns, greys and ochre with small touches of dusty pinks and reds to enliven the picture: a small piece of cloth by the hunting horn on the floor, the man’s hat, the young woman’s sleeve and the visitor’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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