There is mystery in this room. One of the figures has her back to us, so we can’t see the expression on her face. But since the man behind the table seems to be using two clay pipes as a pretend violin and bow, and his companion gestures as though conducting a duet, she may be singing.
Scenes left open to different interpretations are characteristic of seventeenth-century Dutch painting, and depictions of musical gatherings were especially ambiguous – they can represent innocent entertainments or something more salacious. We can’t be sure if what we see here is a musical gathering, however, let alone whether or not it is an innocent one.
But we do feel as though we are in a real space. De Hooch has used the black and white floor tiles to help create this illusion: their lines and sizes help our eye to understand where the figures, furniture, walls and windows are in relation both to us and to each other.
There is a sense of mystery in this room. One of the figures has her back to us, so we can’t see the expression on her face or what she is doing with her left hand. Perhaps she is holding a jug with which she has topped up the wine glass in her other hand. Or perhaps she is clasping it to her chest while she sings. This musical interpretation is suggested by the way that the man behind the table seems to be using two clay pipes as a pretend violin and bow, while his companion gestures as though conducting the two of them in a duet.
Scenes left open to different interpretations are characteristic of seventeenth-century Dutch painting, and depictions of musical gatherings were especially ambiguous – they can represent innocent entertainments or something more salacious. Here we can’t even be sure whether this is a musical gathering, let alone whether or not it is an innocent one. In fact, Pieter de Hooch may have adjusted the painting in order to increase the uncertainty. Infrared photographs show that another man was originally included in the scene, standing very close to – and probably flirting with – the maid who carries some hot coals. It is possible that he was removed before the maid was added, but if not, by erasing him de Hooch softened the potential implication of dalliance in the picture.
Had the couple remained, they would have also emphasised the significance of the painting over the fireplace. It depicts the education of the Virgin Mary, kneeling before her mother, Saint Anne, and so represents the ultimate example of how to instil virtue in a young woman. Placed above the attempted seduction of the maid, the irony would have been clear. With the philanderer removed, its significance is more oblique. Seduction is still potentially in the air, however, hinted at by the intense attention of the men on the woman with the wine glass and by the presence of pipes, including one which has been broken and discarded on the chequerboard floor. At the time both tobacco and alcohol were regarded as aphrodisiacs.
That black and white floor, typical of the time, is one of the ways in which de Hooch has created the illusion of space in the room. The lines and sizes of the tiles help our eye to understand where the figures, furniture, walls and windows are in relation both to us and to each other. De Hooch also used them as an aid himself. Where the paint has started to become transparent with age, we can see that he first painted the floor, then added the figures in the space created: tiles now clearly show through the skirt of the maid and the cloak of the nearer man.
But de Hooch does not seem to have been concerned with the absolute accuracy of the perspective. In fact, it seems that he adapted it for effect. For example, though we don’t notice the distortion, a strict analysis of the geometry of the room suggests the size of the woman in the foreground is wrong. Relative to the other figures she must be about seven feet tall.
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