The interior scenes created by Pieter de Hooch beginning in 1658 are undoubtedly among the greatest works of seventeenth-century Dutch art. He was not only able to perfectly reproduce the details of the Dutch home in his carefully constructed compositions, but also, thanks to the incidence of light, to give them a convincing atmosphere. In the work illustrated here, Man reading a letter to a woman, one can easily grasp how this play with light functions. The back of the man seated by the window is illuminated, leaving his face in shadow. Only the letter in his left hand catches the glare. This naturally draws the viewer’s attention to the woman, who has been placed in full sunlight. Lost in thought, she listens intently to the gentleman before her, looking vaguely in his direction and thereby creating a sense of unity between them. The meticulous execution makes this one of the most attractive paintings in De Hooch’s late, Amsterdam oeuvre.
De Hooch’s earliest works probably date to around 1653-1654, shortly before he settled in Delft. These are simple tavern interiors painted in tones of brown and yellow and generally featuring soldiers and young servants. A change can be perceived around 1657, when ladies and gentleman of higher rank began to fill the central roles. This steady development culminated in 1658 in a series of high-quality works, with figures in varying combinations arranged in a room or interior courtyard. The interaction between the characters is typically rather restrained, giving the scenes a certain stillness. Particularly in the tableaux of mothers and children, of which there are numerous variations, this quietude results in a great sense of intimacy. Here, De Hooch appears to have found his formula for success. In the years around 1660 he continued to produce many paintings in this manner.
It is interesting to note that this period in De Hooch’s career coincides with the creation of the earliest genre paintings by his fellow Delft painter, Johannes Vermeer. Much has been written about the relationship between the two artists in the years 1658-60. There can be no doubt that they inspired one another. Examining the works themselves, it would appear that De Hooch took the lead as far as the choice of subject matter and composition was concerned, while Vermeer was more inventive and daring in his treatment of light. However, in contrast to De Hooch, Vermeer never dated his paintings at this time, making it impossible to judge conclusively.
De Hooch probably moved from the provincial town of Delft to the capital of Amsterdam in 1660, but at the very latest in April 1661. As with other artists who undertook this step, the presence there of a wealthy clientele was probably an important factor in his decision. A new striving for elegance becomes apparent in De Hooch’s work of the early 1660s. The rooms are more opulently decorated – bare wood floors make way for patterned marble tiles – and the figures are attired according to the latest fashion. His technique becomes more meticulous and greater emphasis is placed on the contrasts of light and shade; in addition, reflections begin to play a prominent role in his treatment of light. As the years went by, however, the overall quality of his work began to diminish. From about 1680 onwards there is usually but a shimmer of his earlier talent to be found.
Man reading a letter to a woman was painted in the years 1670-1674. As noted above, De Hooch has here harmoniously combined a balanced composition with subtle effects of light. The man reading the letter at the left, the paintings on the wall, and the fireplace and furniture have all been placed in shadow and thus made subordinate to the central figure of the woman. She is fully illuminated: the light falls on her satin dress and red jacket, but also on the straw linen basket next to her chair.
She leans back slightly in order to have a better view of her companion, who bends forward as he reads. Her expression is somewhat dreamy, her thoughts occupied by what she is hearing. The link between the two thus created, which De Hooch has made to appear completely natural, makes the picture extraordinarily touching. De Hooch has placed the couple in a corner of the room, but thanks to the pattern of the marble floor there is nonetheless a great sense of space and depth.
An anonymous landscape with setting sun hangs above the figures. The picture over the fireplace depicts Mary, Joseph and Jesus. It is a copy after a print by Cornelis Bloemaert of 1625, itself engraved after a painting by Abraham Bloemaert now in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Braunschweig. One might ask if De Hooch had some special meaning in mind in including it in his own composition. The (Latin) inscription on Cornelis’ print – ‘Descended from heaven, miraculous incarnation of the father, He assumes the frail fabric of the human flesh. As the very God, you are lying in the stable on hard straw, seeking and teaching poverty’ – appears to be an exhortation to humility, making it unclear what function the work might have had in this particular context. Arthur Wheelock has suggested that the tenderness here expressed by Mary and Joseph towards their child may be an allusion to the traditional role of women. In seventeenth-century Holland, the good housewife and mother was supposed to place her family and household above all else, considering herself and her wishes only in the second instance. The manner in which De Hooch generally depicted women, and mothers in particular, is certainly in keeping with this notion. Before the arrival of her visitor, the woman in our picture was clearly busy with her needlework, an activity often associated with the virtuous housewife. If nothing else, however, it seems safe to say that as far as the attention paid to the effects of light and the feeling of intimacy are concerned, the two ‘paintings within a painting’ – an evening scene and a night-time tableau by candlelight, respectively – fit perfectly with the mood of the main image.