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A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House
Samuel van Hoogstraten

The peepshow is a rectangular box; the interior is painted on three sides, as well as on the top and bottom. The sixth side is open; originally light would have entered the box from this side, perhaps through specially treated paper stretched across it. The box would have been placed close to a window or illumination provided by a candle. There are peep-holes in the two shorter sides which provide the illusion of three-dimensional views of the interior of a house.

Hoogstraten's box is an unusually elaborate example, decorated on the exterior with allegorical paintings which correspond to chapters in a theoretical book that the artist was to write later. The long side illustrates love of wealth as a motivation for the artist, who appears with a putto holding a cornucopia. Love of art and of fame are the subjects of the paintings on the short sides, while the top is decorated with an allegory of physical love, representing Venus and Cupid in bed, painted in anamorphic (distorted perspective) projection.

The box was probably painted in Dordrecht in the later 1650s. A number of such peepshows were made in Holland but only a few examples have survived. This is one of the finest. The stand is modern.

In conversation
Professor Philip Steadman and Louise Govier explore the peepshow
5 mins 11 secs

Miranda Hinkley: Well, here we are in the Dutch room, just across the way from Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’, and we’re at Hoogstraten’s Peepshow, which is a box mounted on a stand which has painted scenes round the outside, but there’s a little hole in one of the sides, and if you look through it in fact shows the interior of a house. Louise have a look through there and tell me a bit about what you can see.

Louise Govier: Oh, I love this. It’s absolutely fantastic. What always happens when I look into this is that I end up banging my head, because I’m so busy trying to crane round and see all of the different rooms and spaces. Basically you look in and you’re drawn into this interior world. I can see a dog, I can see a chair, and the thing is it’s done in such a clever way that some of these things really do look three-dimensional and you can see doorways in that open out into other worlds, and little glimpses of people – it’s absolutely fantastic.

Miranda Hinkley: Philip, I mean, if we come round the back of the box – the way it’s exhibited now, there’s in fact a glass plate so that we can see exactly how Hoogstraten’s achieved this effect, and I mean this whole thing works on perspective, doesn’t it?

Philip Steadman: It does, yes. Part of it is quite conventional perspective. What Hoogstraten has done is that… it’s like Doctor Who’s tardis, it’s much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. You’ve got these images of a great many rooms that you can see – there are long perspectives through doorways to other rooms beyond. And those are painted in, as I say, conventional perspective, but there are some details which overlap the surfaces of the box, and in particular there’s a little dog, who springs up when you look through one of the peepholes, but when you come round here, as we’re looking now, you can see that he’s painted half on the wall in ordinary perspective, and then half of him, his legs, are painted on the floor, and they are stretched out, and that part of the dog is an anamorphic perspective.

It’s painted on this very steeply angled surface as you’re looking at it from the peephole. It’s all correct, and when your eye is confined to the peephole it all comes out right. And there’s also some very strange red rectangles on the floor, one with a little white rectangle. Now that looks like a carpet or something. But when you look from one of the peepholes, it pops up as a table – it’s the top of a table, and the rectangle is a letter addressed to van Hoogstraten, so perhaps this was his house.

Miranda Hinkley: How do artists go about creating this technique? Do they have to get right down with their sort of eye close to the surface that they’re drawing on, or do they have to stand at a funny angle to the canvas? I mean, how do they do it?

Philip Steadman: Well, I think that’s an open question. I mean there could be a lot of debate about how it’s done. There are discussions in the literature about different methods. Sometimes done with strings, so you would put a frontal view of the object and then draw, stretch strings from the eye-point, through the picture to an oblique plane, and then you would mark out the respective points on that oblique plane. That’s one way of doing it. The way I think van Hoogstraten might have worked here, which would have been equivalent geometrically, is he might have had a bright light, had little models of the chair, and projected shadows. And the shadows would be the same as the anamorphic views, so he might have had a little chair about here, projected a bright light from the peephole and it would have cast the shadows as they are on the three sides of the box, on which the chair is painted.

Louise Govier: It is meant to be a real artistic tour de force, and van Hoogstraten has written himself into the interior of this perspective box in all sorts of ways. So he’s included his own coat of arms and his wife’s family coat of arms, and this is really a lot about him showing off his superb skill, but also what he thinks that can bring for artists, because it connects with what’s on the outside of the box, which is beautifully decorated too, and there are all sorts of little allegorical scenes about what motivates the artist. A desire for money, certainly, is one of the things, but also for fame and glory, and you know, this really is the most extraordinary surviving example of a perspective box, far more complicated than anything else, specially with the two peepholes, that’s very unusual to have two different views…

Philip Steadman: There are half a dozen boxes, but this is the only one with two peepholes…

Louise Govier: And ultimately, it seems to have been something to get the viewer curious about different effects, but also just to show off van Hoogstraten’s supreme mastery of this art.

Miranda Hinkley [in the studio]: Louise Govier and Philip Steadman

You’ve been listening to an extract from the National Gallery podcast.  You can subscribe to the monthly show by visiting www.nationalgallery.org.uk /podcasts.

Key facts
Artist Samuel van Hoogstraten
Artist dates 1627 - 1678
Full title A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House
Date made about 1655-60
Medium and support Oil and egg on wood
Dimensions 58 x 88 x 60.5 cm
Inscription summary Signed; Inscribed
Acquisition credit Presented by Sir Robert and Lady Witt through the Art Fund, 1924
Inventory number NG3832
Location in Gallery Not on display
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