In the sunlight of a quiet afternoon this courtyard seems to radiate tranquillity. Everything is still, including the figures: a young maid, clean and calm, who holds the hand of a little girl, and the shadowy figure of a woman in the passageway to the left, presumably the child’s mother, who turns towards the houses opposite her own. De Hooch placed the mother in the formal part of the house, painted in architectural detail, while the maid and the child stand in an area closer to nature.
The picture shows de Hooch’s skill in depicting architecture, but it’s also a vision of women’s role in the stability of the home. At the time this was painted, treatises were being written on household and family management; Jacob Cats’s Houwelyck was addressed directly to women, its chapters divided into Maiden, Sweetheart, Bride, Housewife, Mother and Widow. Some artists, including de Hooch, presented pictures that were a confirmation and encouragement of the ideals put forward in such books.
In the sunlight of a quiet afternoon this courtyard seems to radiate tranquillity. Everything is still, including the figures. It is a posed image but not a portrait, nor a quick snapshot of life in seventeenth-century Holland. It is more than that. It shows Pieter de Hooch’s skills in depicting architecture but it is also a portrayal of tender human relationships and a vision of women’s role in domesticity and the stability of the home.
The picture is divided in two. On the left, painted with strong verticals and perspective, is the house and the passageway that leads through it. We see each mellow brick and stone of the arched doorway, already old when de Hooch was painting them, and below it, across the width of the picture, the intricate pattern of the courtyard tiles. On the right, framed by the strongly defined L-shape of the architecture, we see a tumbling vine on the fence, the chalky dust of the decaying wall and each rickety wooden plank of the log bin. The detail here is more freely painted than the bricks and tiles, with softer lines and colours taken from nature. The courtyard seems enclosed, though a number of openings seem to suggest otherwise. On the left, the bright red shutter hangs open, echoed on the right by the door at the top of the steps. The main door in the passageway is a link to the outside world.
A discarded broom in the foreground catches the eye. Sometimes this can symbolise a room that needs a good sweeping, both physically and morally, but in this picture it takes on another symbolic meaning: a well-ordered household. Things may be old and well-used but they are still spotless. Most of all, broom and bucket nod to the presence of the young maid on the step behind. They are her tools. She has performed all her duties and stands, clean and calm, holding the hand of the little girl.
Yet there seems to be an air of ambiguity about the image. We don’t know what is through the doorway at the top of the steps, nor do we know what the little girl holds in her apron or what’s in the maid’s dish. Above the archway is a tablet rescued from a nunnery once on the site of the house. Literally translated it reads: ‘This is in Saint Jerome’s vale, if you wish to repair to patience and meekness. For we must first descend if we wish to be raised’, but its meaning is unclear. In keeping with the subtlety of the rest of the picture, de Hooch has obscured these words behind a delicate web of leaves. Perhaps the greatest enigma is the shadowy figure of the woman in the passageway. Even in silhouette, she appears to be more expensively dressed than the maid and is presumably the child’s mother, yet she has distanced herself from them and turns towards the houses opposite her own. As the woman of the house, she would be responsible for its care but also for how her house and family were presented to the world.
There was a big change in household circumstances during the seventeenth century in Holland. For the first time, business was no longer done at home, with perhaps just one separate room near the front door for this activity. Men – and occasionally some women – now went out to offices or warehouses elsewhere in the city and the house became more and more the domain of women. Small treatises were written on household and family management. They were widely circulated and the most popular among them was Jacob Cats’s Houwelyck, distinguished from others in that it was richly illustrated and written in verse. Most importantly, Cats addressed his book directly to women rather than men – the chapters are divided into Maiden, Sweetheart, Bride, Housewife, Mother and Widow.
These treatises presented an ideal vision of marriage and domesticity totally at variance with the reality of daily life, but it seems that some artists, including de Hooch, took up their themes and presented pictures that were a visual confirmation and encouragement of the ideals they put forward. Others chose to approach them with wit and irony, as Jan Steen does in his painting The Effects of Intemperance. The treatises also paid great attention to the bringing up of children, especially girls, and paintings like de Hooch’s were bought to reinforce that message. Again, Steen produced an image more open to interpretation in his painting Grace before Meat – while the children appear well-behaved, the little girl’s eyes are fixed on the soup in a large tureen even while her hands are folded in prayer. But in the soft sunshine that warms the courtyard of de Hooch’s painting, the linked hands and the glance between maid and child suggest love and trust rather than strictness and convention.
De Hooch was a master of the depiction of architecture, of perspective and of the detail of objects and textures, but he was also a master of the perceptive portrayal of human relationships, so subtly revealed in this painting. He has placed the child and maid in the area of the courtyard closest to nature, and their linked hands and the glance between them seem to be far more than merely an instructive homily. We are witness to a private, intimate moment between the two – a child who loves and is loved in return.
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