‘Transcendence in Ordinary Domestic Life’ – and a transcendentally beautiful essay

August 23, 2017 at 1:13 pm (Art, Magazines and newspapers)

The above painting by Pieter de Hooch is variously titled “A Mother Delousing Her Child’s Hair” or, more succinctly and less specifically, “A Mother’s Duty.” Made some time between 1658 and 1660, it is currently housed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Of the artist, Willard Spiegelman tells us this:

About De Hooch we know little. Born in Rotterdam to a bricklayer and a midwife, he trained (perhaps) in Haarlem, and moved to Delft in 1652, where Vermeer also lived. It’s unclear if they had dealings. In 1661 De Hooch went to Amsterdam. He died impoverished, in a madhouse.

Spiegelman has more to say about the painting itself, which he calls ” a northern, secular version of a traditional Madonna and Child.”

In  the course of this eloquent explication, Spiegelman draws a subtle difference between the art of de Hooch and that of Vermeer:

We do not find in de Hooch what we most prize in Vermeer: a mysterious sense of human inwardness, an artist’s interest in the psychological depth of his characters, either alone or in small groups.

Reading this sentence, I felt a light turn on in my mind. So that is it, that is the secret – or at least, part of it – of Vermeer’s uncanny hold on those of us who are transfixed by his art. But Spegelman does not allow us to get sidetracked by Vermeer. The subject of this jewel-like essay is the many virtues of “A Mother’s Duty.”

Spiegelman refers to the dog at the left as an element in the picture that “…increases domestic charm.” In art, the dog is a symbol of fidelity and loyalty. Two of my favorite examples of this usage are the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio:

(I highly recommend Jan Morris’s delightful little volume, Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation.)

(Willard Spiegelman’s essay appeared in the August 19 – 20 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The link provided in the previous sentence may not lead you to the full text. If that happens, the article can be accessed via the ProQuest database. Please see this post for instructions on how to do this through the Howard County Library’s website. Scroll down to the bottom to view those instructions.)

I am deeply grateful for the weekly Review section of the Wall Street Journal, in which literature and the arts have unquestioned pride of place.

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