The dimensions of gentleness

It is tempting, perhaps, to feel that the only thing that is wrong with Pieter de Hooch is that he is not Jan Vermeer. So special has Vermeer's luminous vision of house interiors become in our assessment of seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting that there is a tendency to underestimate De Hooch, his almost exact contemporary. Both artists worked in Delft in the 1650s. Both of them produced still, carefully ordered paintings, frequently of rooms in which one or two figures, often women, pursue undisturbing activities. Light filters through windows into these indoor spaces (so convincing in their realism), and the viewer is easily persuaded to accept the illusion that the painting (or part of it) is actually its own source of illumination.

The illusionistic was much in the minds of Dutch genre painters at this period. A new fascination surfaced for the effectiveness of perspective. At least one painter, Van Hoogstraten, who had been trained in Rembrandt's studio, is known to have constructed a peep-show ''perspective box,'' and it seems likely that his better-known fellow student, Fabritius, also made one. Van Hoogstraten's, though, has survived, and is in the National Gallery in London. When you peer into it through a small hole, the painting on the walls and floor of the box not only presents you with a convincing three-dimensional Dutch interior but also suspends your sense of scale. You think it is full-size, with one room leading to another, chairs large enough to sit in, windows and doors to look and walk through - and yet the whole thing measures about two feet by three.

It is in the use of perspective that De Hooch is most obviously different from Vermeer (his evenly modulated light, however, has none of the other painter's crystalline magic). Using perspective, he discovered that he could transform a flat canvas, and even a shallow room, into deep architectural spaces; this fitted perfectly with the doorways and courtyards and checkerboard tiled floors of Dutch houses. In ''A Boy Bringing Pomegranates,'' this movement of the eye along the converging lines of recessional perspective takes one through a doorway to an outer courtyard, then through an arch, over a canal and even into the door of a house opposite. The illusionism is almost as effective as Van Hoogstraten's perspective box, but without its rather inconvenient apparatus. De Hooch just made paintings.

Clearly he wanted to convince the viewer that the small boy offering fruit to the woman silhouetted in her doorway has walked through the arch, and possibly even come from the other side of the canal - he could have been sent by the woman framed in her doorway over there: she seems to be watching him. Such an undramatic and unemphatic event is capable of being read quite casually. De Hooch's world, even more than Vermeer's, pictures commonplace domestic happenings, so poised and unremarkable as to be free of anecdote or ''moral'' or sentimentality. There is, however, a gentle feeling shared by the protagonists in De Hooch's pictures, and it is not fair to claim, as Friedlander did, that ''the emotional note which his work conveys to us echoes out of the room'' rather than the people in it. And surely the ''art lover'' which the great connoisseur goes on to quote is similarly unjustified when he wittily ''remarked that De Hooch partakes of the nature of cats, which display more loyal affection for the house than for its inhabitants.''

There is an element of truth in this, of course, but it doesn't allow for the harmony evident in his best pictures between people and their surroundings. They are all part-and-parcel. Certainly in this painting (and it is also true of other De Hooch paintings where women are seen tending to children) there is as much gentleness and decorum in the relationship of woman to boy as there is in the relationship of door to window or chair to floor. The same gentleness is felt in the unforced light which falls on a wall, murmurs in a dark corner, rests on a cushion. Quiet efficiency is the motherliness in De Hooch's women, and is in accord with his own affectionate construction of a painting. Rectangles within rectangles, frames round frames: these are the elements of the ''boxes'' we live in called houses, and they are the precise language of De Hooch's surprisingly abstract art. Certain features recur in more than one of his pictures, so it is assumed that he does not depict actual homes. As Peter Sutton has written: his scenes are ''at once artificially contrived and wholly credible.''

De Hooch is concerned with something universal in both his people and their surroundings, with the familiarity of coming in and going out, of that everyday but wonderful dialogue - mute and taken-for-granted, but worth an artist's notice - which occurs across thresholds.

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