A Year Lived Inside With Instagram and a Dutch Master
Thinking about Pieter de Hooch while scrolling through my phone
This is an essay I just published in The Nation, where I am a contributing writer. It was written in France, where I spent the last year and a half. I just got back this week. I got a haircut for the first time since March 12, 2020. Tomorrow I make my first visit to the dentist in almost two years. During the lockdown, I thought a lot about my nostalgia for Holland, and about the beginnings of my long relationship with that country, half a life ago.
What is the perfect place to live? If a year ago you thought you’d found it, you probably reconsidered as lockdown dragged on. Back then, it didn’t really matter if the paint was flaking and the furniture was shopworn and the kitchen was long in the tooth. You could always step outside, go to a restaurant, take a trip. After only a few weeks of confinement, we realized how important it is to be able to step into other rooms.
For many of us who’ve been able to work from home—or whose jobs simply disappeared during lockdown—the only “other rooms” we’ve had are in our phones. And while the lockdown may be ending in some places and for some people, the pandemic is not over, no matter how close we keep thinking we are getting to Overness. It’s not over where I live, as I’m reminded every so often by one of those little phone alerts that make me realize, with horror, just how much time I’d been spending there on my phone: I “averaged” six or even seven hours a day—doing what, exactly, I was never sure. Some legitimate stuff—writing e-mails, talking with friends, working my way through a recipe—but mostly not. And most of the not was Instagram.
I joined Instagram around 2013—a bit late. I did so only because I was working on a biography of Susan Sontag. I was reading reams of writing about photography, coming to understand its history and its practitioners, its debates and its controversies, yet I realized that, apart from some vacation snapshots, I had never taken a photograph. I had no real experience of the thing I was writing about.
A friend suggested Instagram. He gave me some tips, which were less about the art of photography than about the art of not being obnoxious on social media. Don’t post more than once a day, he said. Please spare us your cappuccino. Remember that pictures of kids aren’t interesting to people who don’t know the kids. It’s a social network, so try to think about what other people will find interesting.
It turned out that it was easy to discover what other people liked because they would literally “like” it, and you could see the numbers. I poured energy into photographing the fascinating arcana—Grecian urns, rare manuscripts—that I encountered on my travels. I devised evocative descriptions. My recherché images tanked. People wanted sunsets and guys in swimsuits; the Eiffel Tower never failed to wow.
The longer I was on Instagram, the more I realized that I wasn’t that different. There was a very specific thing I wanted to look at: romantic gardens, castles, churches, and, especially, interiors. I could scroll through page after page of beautifully decorated, beautifully photographed rooms, the dawn or evening light falling just so on a flower, a vase, a rug. In these pictures, people hardly appeared.
Would people have ruined the effect? Maybe. The accounts showing comfortable rooms had hundreds of thousands of followers. I realized that I had stumbled across a powerful fantasy. It was a fantasy that I shared, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a fantasy that had shaped my entire life. The strange thing is that I had never thought about it before, at least not consciously.
At some point between December 17, 1998, and February 27, 1999, I went to visit my sister. I am not sure of the exact date, but I know what those months meant in terms of my own life. In the spring of 1998, I had graduated from college and moved to New York City. My sister was a few months from graduating from Amherst. We met in Hartford, and went to see a show at the Wadsworth Atheneum.
It was a retrospective of the paintings of Pieter de Hooch, a painter I had never heard of, and those were the dates it ran. I hadn’t heard of many artists, and the more I learned and studied, the more I realized how much there was to learn and study. In order to continue my education after college, I read art magazines and went to every exhibition I could. It didn’t matter what it was about or who the artists were.
I don’t remember most of what I saw in those years, but I remember the De Hooch exhibition clearly because it was the first time I had ever felt the charm of the Dutch. His pictures showed spotlessly clean middle-class rooms where, bathed in warm light, brightly clad people were taking part in some peaceful activity: getting ready for school, chatting with neighbors, playing with the dog.
Those rooms breathed refinement and civilization. Anyone who visits a palace fantasizes about what it would be like to live there, but nobody ever thinks that they will actually move in to Versailles or the Winter Palace. The appeal of De Hooch’s Holland was that you could so easily see yourself in those perfect rooms. It was a vision so welcoming that I never forgot it. That, I thought, is the place to live.
That weekend in Connecticut, I did not suspect how quickly a series of coincidences would bring me to those rooms—or how much of my life I would spend in them. Before long, I would be living in a 17th-century Dutch house, with windows (and beams and courtyards and doors) that looked exactly like those in De Hooch’s paintings. Only the people looked different; but the people weren’t the point.
At first, living in the Netherlands was the Instagram fantasy. In later years, the light started to fade. The reality of Dutch life—reptilian politicians, neglecting to vacuum, unanswered e-mail—muscled its way in. It made me forget the silvery light falling through latticed windows onto blue-and-white ceramics. The place became a bit too peopled. Then lockdown came, and I started scrolling through Instagram. And I remembered Pieter de Hooch.
There aren’t many books about De Hooch. Maybe this is because, as Jan Lievens suffers in comparison to Rembrandt, De Hooch suffers in comparison to his neighbor and acquaintance Vermeer. Or because, like many Dutch painters whose radicalism in their own day has grown invisible to us now, he seems so unchallenging—the equivalent, in painting, of a high-end interiors magazine.
There’s been only a single, partial show about him since the one I saw right after college. One suspects that exhibition was a long-cherished dream, since it was put together by the Wadsworth’s then director, Peter Sutton, who wrote the catalog and who, nearly two decades before, had written the standard work on De Hooch. In a cruel, curt paragraph in that book, Sutton summed up what was known of the artist’s life:
De Hooch was born in Rotterdam in 1629, had moved to Delft by 1652, was employed by a linen merchant and joined the guild in Delft in September 1655. Contact with the painter Hendrick van der Burch was established in these years and after settling in Amsterdam in 1660-1 De Hooch is known to have encountered works by De Witte. He evidently remained a resident of Amsterdam until his death in the madhouse in 1684. Throughout his life De Hooch seems to have been relatively poor.
Those last two sentences brought me up short. Death in the madhouse. Relatively poor. They seemed incompatible with De Hooch’s tranquil, composed rooms. In his pictures, you can almost see dust floating in the light streaming through the windows. You can imagine the crackling of logs in the hearth. You can hear the swish of the maidservant’s broom on the floor, the snore of sleeping puppies. These are pictures of a dream.
This is why the titles bestowed on them by scholars—Woman With Children in an Interior; A Party of Figures Around a Table—seem so disappointing. The barest descriptions were chosen, their poverty pointing to the embarrassment of putting into words the feelings these paintings really evoke: A Young Man’s Yearning for Love; My Beloved Grandmother, Dead These Many Years.
You could describe them in other ways, too. You could name them for furniture, for atmosphere: Afternoon Light on a Gilded Wall Covering; Study of Bricks and Tiles. The people inside these paintings aren’t really the point. The most important people stand outside those rooms and imagine themselves inside. They are the people looking at them: us.
The world into which De Hooch invites us is rigorously edited. His subjects are conviviality, friendship, and family. His deepest feelings seem to have been reserved for scenes of mothers and small children, and though he was a father of seven himself, he hardly ever paints fathers. Men are shown as accessories to women; the love of couples is suggested mainly by the offspring those unions produce.
Yet it is a world suffused by love, a world in which little unpleasantness intrudes. The time and place are instantly recognizable, but the works seem to exist outside of time; and as I looked at these paintings again during the interminable lockdowns and isolation of the months of Covid, I felt the way I did when looking at those pictures of Instagram. More than enjoying such pictures, I needed them.
De Hooch’s work can be divided into three distinct phases—or, as we shall see, four. The earliest consists of paintings of humble people, often soldiers, in taverns and inns. They’re sitting around drinking, playing games, killing time. The setting is the countryside, the village; the rooms are like places where livestock might be kept, with floors of clay or mud or the barest wooden planks.
The tavern and the village give way to the middle-class urban home in his second phase, a shift that coincided with his marriage to Jannetgen van der Burch, a woman from Delft. De Hooch moved there from Rotterdam in 1654, the year that the explosion of a gunpowder magazine destroyed a huge area of Delft and killed Carel Fabritius, who was traditionally seen as the link between Rembrandt and Vermeer.
The city’s devastation, which attracted other painters, never appears in De Hooch’s works. Nothing intrudes on the contentment of the happy home. His first children were born in 1655 and 1656, but if another artist might have experienced such an eruption as an interruption, it was a liberation for De Hooch, and in the years of his children’s infancy, he painted his greatest works.
In these pictures, De Hooch, more than any other artist, created a nation. It was a country where, as all foreign visitors remarked, cleanliness was next to godliness (“One doesn’t dare spit in the rooms,” a Frenchman marveled in 1651), and where children were cosseted. Foreigners thought they were spoiled: “Never before had a people produced so many images of tender and contented families,” Sutton writes.
This middle-class land of clean and happy homes was an artistic invention. The farther back one goes in the history of art, the more one realizes how many such inventions there are, and how little we could see or say without them. So many forms and expressions that seem too obvious to have necessitated an inventor turn out, upon closer inspection, to have had one; we often know their names.
“Pliny names the first painter to have distinguished males from females, the first painter to show three-quarter views of heads as well as veins and drapery folds, the first painter to paint open mouths and teeth and expressions, the first painter to depict objects realistically,” wrote the scholar Christopher Wood. “Aristedes of Thebes ‘was the first of all painters who depicted the mind and expressed the feelings of a human being.’”
In De Hooch’s paintings are other inventions, too, including his trademark doorkijkje, a window or door that opens onto another space. This trick demands deviousness. The painter needs to fool the brain into combining two separate perspectives into one, the way our two separate eyes make us combine a split image into a whole. De Hooch was figuring out the technique right as he began painting mothers and children.
You can see its beginnings in a painting from just before this breakthrough, Soldier and Serving Woman With Card Players. The people cluster in the left half of the painting, lit by some light that comes from the place where we are standing. The right half is dark—except for a tiny golden streak, a brushstroke glowing like a painting by Mark Rothko or a zip by Barnett Newman. It would soon expand.
This brushstroke dates from around 1655, when De Hooch would step out of the tavern and head into the home. When he did, the little streak grew. In Mother and Child With a Serving Woman Sweeping, the other room suggested in the earlier painting has opened onto a small, bright vestibule; and in the picture’s imperfections, we see how hard it is to unify these spaces, and the light that enters them.
The muddled, muddy floors have given way to brick and tile. This classes the rooms up a bit. And, conveniently, it gives the painter a neat geometric grid along which to plot his perspective. But the transitions are rough. If De Hooch had simply closed the door to the vestibule, the picture would have been perfect. Because he opened it, the strains show. The little room has come strangely unhinged.
Soon—we can’t know how soon, but in the early years of marriage and fatherhood—he resolves this difficult technical question, and his pictures start to burst with views—down streets, through windows, out of doors—that turn some of his paintings into labyrinths. Light streams in from all sorts of unexpected directions, and the pictures take on a warmth and an openness that matches their subjects.
The paintings of the late 1650s are among the most sheerly beautiful that the Dutch produced at the height of their glory. Perhaps this success inspired De Hooch to exchange stuffy, conservative Delft for the booming capital, Amsterdam, where he moved in the early 1660s. There, he began the third phase of his career: taking families out of their middle-class homes and placing them in palaces.
Seventeenth-century Holland is fertile ground for novelists, fantasists, and forgers. Easy to envision (thanks to its artists) and meticulously documented (thanks to its tireless bureaucrats), its history is just romantic enough, and contains just enough mystery, that it invites us to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps.
So many pieces have already been found, after all. A whole history has been assembled from a century and a half of determined sleuthing. Generations of art historians have added up apparently trivial details—notes from village account books, drawings fished out of suburban garages, tests on pigments and nails—to provide such a rich picture of the Golden Age that it is always tempting to add one more.
Some inventors, like the novelists, acknowledge that they are using their imaginations. Others fill in the gaps in more dubious ways. Before the Second World War, Han van Meegeren offered his own answer to the fraught question of how Vermeer’s early style morphed into maturity in the form of forgeries that, for a while, made fools of leading connoisseurs.
We don’t have to go that far. But one such novelistic question concerns the relationship between De Hooch and Vermeer. We know that they knew each other—in tiny Delft, they would have to—and that their art was in dialogue. But like so much else in these scarcely documented lives, all we can go on is the evidence they left in their paintings.
Vermeer’s fame, surpassed only by Rembrandt’s, is so great that any artist in his circle is relegated to staffage. But in Sutton’s exhibition—this might have been its thesis—was a claim that De Hooch and Vermeer represented “one of those extraordinary creative partnerships, whether personal or merely professional, which advance the history of art in ways that the two masters might not have achieved individually.”
Vermeer was three years younger. By 1656, when he painted his first dated work, The Procuress, De Hooch had already left his own apprenticeship years behind and embarked on the great works of his mature period, whose characteristics were the small interior scenes that would become Vermeer’s trademark. In paintings like Officer and Laughing Girl in the Frick, we see the echo of De Hooch.
The work seems to be derived from an earlier picture by De Hooch with the typically boring name of Soldiers Playing Cards. The design is similar, the differences clear: De Hooch is more expressive and less precise, without that weird characteristic of Vermeer’s, the uncanny way that his paintings, like a pixelated photo blown up too big, dissolve when seen from too close.
There are other differences, too: De Hooch’s colors are darker, less jewel-like than Vermeer’s. But as we see in De Hooch’s first real masterpiece, A Merry Company With Two Men and Two Women, we are in the same world. As usual, the title tells us nothing except that the picture features four people in an interior; we visualize it better when learning that great connoisseurs once took it for a Vermeer.
The figures are grouped around a table and lit, as in so many Vermeers, from a window whose lower shutters are closed. The light, coming from the gray skies that settle like a blanket over Holland for so many months in the year, creates a feeling of privacy, of intimacy. The scene invites us to dream of what life could be in a peaceful room, in a peaceful land.
When De Hooch moved to Amsterdam around 1660, his pictures gained a new bombast. The middle-class pictures from Delft gave way to something befitting the great city’s opulence. The floors, once of mud and then of brick and tile, are now of exotic marble. The solid furniture of the earlier pictures is now carved from ebony and inlaid with tortoiseshell, the gray walls now covered with gilded leather.
Many of these scenes are sited within Amsterdam’s great wonder, the City Hall. Holland had no tradition of kingship or of palatial architecture, and if, even today, this building looms gigantically over the low-rise city center, we can only imagine how majestic it would have appeared to someone who had just come from Delft. The building was in the last phases of construction when De Hooch arrived.
Its interiors were as lavish as the palace of a king. But in this merchants’ republic, the monarch that this architecture honored was Amsterdam itself. De Hooch was the first to paint these interiors. Several of his paintings show impressed tourists, suitably dolled up for the occasion and accompanied by pet dogs. They walk atop the world: on the huge marble maps of the known universe that are set in the floor.
De Hooch also repurposed the town hall as a fantasy palace. Imagining its chambers as the rooms of a great aristocratic house, he inserted groups, fancily dressed and doing fancy things, in similar positions to the middle-class families and friends he painted in Delft. Yet even the most accomplished of these paintings lack the freshness of the earlier works. The fantasy, now, is a bit too obvious.
De Hooch produced nearly half his known paintings after his move to Amsterdam. It is hard to delineate what might be called the fourth phase of his work, because it runs concurrently with the third. He was still capable of high quality, and even of the occasional masterpiece. But many of his works from this time are quite simply hideous.
Some are so bad that they were later used to illustrate the decadence of an entire nation—a middle-class folk who, bloated by wealth and power, had been lulled into a complacency that precipitated their fall. These works have long frustrated his advocates and posed an interpretative challenge; in his exhibition, Sutton tactfully omitted them.
Besides the visual evidence of these paintings, almost nothing is known of De Hooch’s last years. Five more children were born in Amsterdam, bringing the total to seven; two died. Four years after he started painting his fantasy palaces, he was not assessed any tax, meaning he was relatively poor. He never found his footing in the metropolis, which was facing economic distress and foreign invasion.
This was the period in which Vermeer had to move in with his mother-in-law and Jan Steen had to apply for a license to run a tavern. Looking at De Hooch’s pictures from this time, it is easy to imagine the aging artist pumping out as much “content” as he can, forced to sacrifice the most remarkable feature of his greatest works, their quality of stillness—their distance from the madding crowd.
In 1976, the discovery that he had died insane cast an entirely new light on these pictures. Here, at last, was an explanation, though one that raised its own unanswerable questions. What was the nature of his mental illness? When had it begun? Was his illness responsible for his lapses? Or was it his deteriorating economic position—his inability to work as in his younger years—that drove him mad?
De Hooch’s late period is not, like that of Frans Hals or Rembrandt, an apotheosis; it is a shipwreck. And when his work is compared, once again, to his neighbor Vermeer’s, it raises another question. Attributions vary, but Vermeer left around 34 works. He died at 42. What if De Hooch had died at the same age, a year or two after he moved to Amsterdam, and painted none of his late works?
He would still have painted more than Vermeer—but not by much, especially if we deduct the pictures from his years of apprenticeship. There would be about the same number of great paintings, around 30. Many of these are better than the lesser Vermeers. If the two bodies of work were placed side-by-side, not everyone would agree—not instantly—as to which of them was the greater artist.
Stapled to my phone in the year of the plague, I felt an almost physical relief when, turning away from the pain of the world, I could flip through pictures of sunlit rooms. And I started thinking about Pieter de Hooch once again. I read about his madness, contemplating the divorce between the reality of his life and the alternative facts of his paintings, and I remembered an afternoon I once spent in The Hague.
My father was in town. A lawyer, he had discovered that the trial of Slobodan Milošević was open to the public, and wanted to see it. I could think of many ways I would rather spend the day than hearing about mass rapes and racist massacres, but I went because I was curious to see a monster who had destroyed so many people—indeed, entire nations.
In his gray suit, the monster looked—you guessed it—banal. The question being discussed was the makeup of a chain of command that had authorized a massacre in Bosnia, and whether the ultimate power resided in Belgrade—with Milošević—or with the Bosnian Serb army in Pale. The discussion was no less boring for being a question of life and death. Afterward my dad and I went to the Mauritshuis.
This was almost exactly the scenario that Lawrence Wechsler described inVermeer in Bosnia, a book I read a few years later. In it, Wechsler told of a judge who, after a day of listening to stories of rape and murder, would go to that same museum in order to wash off the stench. The contrast brought him to an insight that never left me, since it brought me so close to the real appeal of those images of conviviality:
When Vermeer was painting those images, which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity, all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just recently ceased to be): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty, replete with sieges and famines and massacres and mass rapes, unspeakable tortures and wholesale devastation. To be sure, the sense of Holland during Vermeer’s lifetime which we are usually given—that of the country’s so-called Golden Age—is one of becalmed, burgherlike efficiency; but that Holland, to the extent that it ever existed, was of relatively recent provenance, and even then under a continual threat of being overwhelmed once again.
Vermeer’s serenity was interrupted by his early death. Would he have been able to keep up the pose if he, like De Hooch, had lived another coarse, hungry decade? The ugliness he kept so carefully at bay crept into De Hooch’s later pictures in all kinds of ways: not in direct depictions of the depredations Wechsler describes, but in the off-kilter sense they give of how hard it was to keep it together.
As tragic as De Hooch’s death in the madhouse seemed, it was, at least, an explanation, a drama. These spare facts—a once-great artist churning out half-deranged pictures for a quick buck and brought to this pathetic end—delivered us back into the realm of the historical novel and held out an invitation to fill in the blanks. Even without speculation, these facts offered a kind of redemption for his work.
But in 2008, the art historian Frans Grijzenhout discovered that the De Hooch who died in the Amsterdam madhouse in 1684 was not the artist. It was his son, also named Pieter, who had been committed five years earlier, at the request of his parents. He was 24 and had trained as a painter. His parents undertook to “supply him with linen and wool and wash and change him properly.”
No further documentation has been discovered about De Hooch’s own death, or that of his wife, or that of the four children who, presumably, survived them. Besides this document, the only information that we have about his last years is the record of the baptism of another son in 1672. The year of his son’s death is also that of his last dated painting, so we can probably assume he didn’t live much longer.
When the younger Pieter was sent to the madhouse, the other surviving children were 15, 12, and 7: a young household still. But the man who had painted mothers and children with such tenderness had grown old. He had already buried two children, and his son’s illness must have been severe for his parents to commit him to an institution as ugly as a 17th-century bedlam.
The portrait that emerges from this new information does not, therefore, change much about the artist’s decline: a torturous home life, an attempt to keep producing at a time of economic meltdown. He must have known how inferior these later works were. For any artist, it would have been a source of pain and reproach to watch inspiration ferment into drudgery. But he had rent to pay, mouths to feed.
For this artist, this fate was especially cruel. His deepest feelings were reserved for scenes of the happy home, of contented women, of bright children. Everything suggests that the man who created these images was a loving husband, a proud father; and if the rooms and relationships were surely messier in real life, the emotions these images stir are too convincing not to reflect the artist’s.
Or a longing of the artist’s. It was a longing of mine, too. When I think of De Hooch, I wonder how he looked back at those masterpieces. It is one thing to look forward to happiness. It is something else to look back on it when it is lost.
Speaking of The Nation:
I’d like to recommend two articles in the current issue about Israel-Palestine.
The first is by the courageous Congresswoman Betty McCollum, about her attempts to prevent the massive American funding of Israel from funding Palestinian suffering. When I think about the hate I receive for opening my mouth on this issue, I can only imagine what she, as a congresswoman, is subjected to. Lots of Americans agree with her, including lots of people in Congress; but the forces of reaction are so powerful that most people shrug. Who needs the hate?
The second is by Talia Lavin, with the title: “A Fart Joke Is Not a Pogrom.” If you thought that hardly needed to be said—well, you should read this article. Israel is an intellectual creation—a creation of ideas. When these are the best ideas its defenders can come up with, Israel has a real problem, and one that isn’t going to be solved by yelling at people on social media.