Pieter de Hooch, Musical Party in a Courtyard, 1677, National Gallery, London.
Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684) exercised apparently a strong influence on Vermeer and was fond of painting domestic scenes, often with doorways into other spaces, using the motif of the so-called “see-through door” (doorkijkje), and especially courtyards of houses, with exteriors which as with this one could be drenched in summer afternoon sunlight, whilst managing at the same time to explore the balance and extremes of light and shadow. Usually portrayals of couples, family members or several people on familiar terms with each other, they can be seen as a variation of either the earlier merry company or duet genre, however in a more intimate but simultaneously airy setting. His paintings were rarely imbued with explicit, moral ideas or didactics, and colours were often vibrant, warm but somehow also soft-hued. However, there is a fluidity to his contrasts of open and closed spaces, of outside and inside and of private and public spheres, which allowed for pictorial representations of certain ethical and social conventions that could also have had moral implications.
Here is a typical see-through door motif. De Hooch tried to avoid the claustrophobia of domestic interiors by the spatially sharp division between the inside and outside, whilst at the same time binding them together with a form of interdependence, that feels secure, open and harmonious. The elegance inside is matched by the splendour of the house fronts on the other side of the canal (the exact location has been identified as Keizersgracht in Amsterdam).
A couple, both of whom seem middle-aged and attired in handsome clothes, are eating some oysters from a plate on a table, covered by a rich, thick Persian (Herat) rug – the “ubiquitous carpet on the table [which] was a costly import found in elegant households” (Gifford and Glinsman, 2017, 73) – whilst a young girl, who could even be an itinerant musician, accompanies the proceedings on a viola. The couple are looking pleasingly into each other’s eyes, seem at ease, and quite at home in each other’s company. The lady is daintily holding a small glass of white wine in her left hand, whilst in her right she seems to dangling a fan. She is the prominent figure whilst the male is palmed off to the periphery of the shadows. It is her refinement and manner that prevails, whilst his role is more subordinate, muted and toneless, one almost of a retainer, provider or proxy. The warmth of the colours and hint of a hot summer’s day do their bit to augment the sensuality and passion portrayed in the couple’s mutual attraction.
The oysters are a sign and bearer of the interior’s wealth, comfort and status, and something to be enjoyed in the cool and serenity of the courtyard, in almost the same way as the woman calmly assumes her self-evident place at the table, thus also attracting the focus and desire of the viewer. They communicate the lust and arousal that is filling this inner courtyard and the painting itself. Moreover, it is the man offering the female the oyster, as a morsel, and foretaste of his passion and it carries with it all the ingredients of his longing and wish to win over the lady he so desires. He is hoping that the oyster may whet her appetite too for him, thus reinforcing its mutual and reciprocal intent. Tantalisingly, an orange sits on the table, as another delicacy to be enjoyed or used to convey some sort of political message (bearing in mind the painting’s date). The viola and music add to the amatory feel of the scene, in suitable accordance with their symbolic significance. So distinctly there is an erotic tone well-embedded in the seclusion of the courtyard despite the open entrance onto the street but the outside exterior seems also tranquil and well-manicured, and not at all a threat or an invitation for intrusion or penetration. There on the threshold a young man or boy stands in silhouette with what possibly looks like a wide-brimmed hat under his left arm, surveying the sun-lit street outside and perhaps keeping watch. Hollander too underscores the intimacy of the interior, which provides both homely security and worldly pleasure, as belonging to the world of the female in her dual role as virtuous housewife and amorous partner, which is reflected here quite aptly in the refined atmosphere and erotic undercurrent (Hollander, 2002, 164-5). The household and its walls are her dominion, the incubator for all moral and spiritual development, which also served as a model for the Dutch republic as a family and vice versa.
Gifford, E.M. and L. D. Glinsman (2017): Collective style and personal manner. In: Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, eds. A. Waiboer et al. London, Yale University Press, pp.65-83.
Hollander, M. (2002): An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art. Berkeley, University of California Press.