The Courtyard of a House in Delft, by Pieter de Hooch
mid 17th century
canvas, 73.5 cm x 60 cm
National Gallery, London
It's a courtyard, with doors and walls and a view into another yard, but I can't tell where the house is. Where are we facing? Is the main part of the house on the left, where we see the edge of a tall brick structure? Is it through the arch in that structure, across the other yard in the distance? Or are we the viewer in the house looking out into its courtyard?
Like most of de Hooch's paintings, the human figures in this scene are like mannequins, fixtures, part of the still life. That is not to say that he is psychologically unsympathetic, but whereas in Vermeer the interest is in the human relationships, and the scene is a frame for them, in de Hooch the framing is the beauty, and the human set it off.
There are two women in the picture, and a little girl holding her mother's hand. The mother and child are facing us, though not facing out at us but turned towards each other. The mother is stepping down as if to come towards us, but the step is entirely without motion. They are in the right half of the picture, almost in the centre. There's a rough wooden wall in shadow behind them, and a wooden door in a brick wall on the right, leading up to something humbly domestic: a dairy or buttery perhaps.
On the left there is this arched corridor (alternately bordered in red brick and white stone) leading across to the other open space we see in the distance, full of light, with wooden fences and doors and another arch, though we can't see quite enough of each of things beyond the first arch to make out how the distant glimpse fits together. And the other woman is standing at the end of that corridor, facing away, looking out. Her hands are folded, I think, though we can't see them or her face. She isn't holding anything: she has no sign of duties or purpose or activity. I'm not sure about the costume but my guess is she's more likely mistress than maid. And she's just standing quite still, looking away from us, out of our scene and sight, to another; and she has no visible connexion to the other two people, closer to us.
I think the nearer woman must be a domestic; her costume, though not ragged, is less impressive, more workaday, as is her daughter's, and she's carrying something - perhaps a shallow basket, I can't tell. Its lightness and apparent emptiness seem symbolic here. She is carrying a message to her child, moral safety perhaps, rather than anything of the world. Her little girl is holding up a fold of her garment with her free hand, as if to keep it clean, as if in keeping with the moral surety.
Over the arch on the left is an inscription on the house, in a frame. It ends with a date (1614?). At the foot of the brickwork, on the far left of the picture, is a stone tablet with the artist's initials PDH and a date (1653? 1659? I'm squinting at a postcard, I should go back and check the original in the Gallery). He has inscribed himself into the solidity and permanence of this peaceful Dutch world.
Above the rough wall on the right is an overgrowing tree that we see a little of, and a bit of some climber like a vine (though the leaves are wrong for that, so I don't know what it is). Above that a bit of sky, mainly full of warm-toned clouds, and only the merest smidgen of blue. The open world of nature seems so far away.
One pole goes across the top at an angle, another connects it at rear, and another at front: too few for a trellis. The effect of the front pole is to divide the mother and child from the open door into the buttery or whatever it is: a little, light enclosing.
The very front of the picture has warm yellow bricks, and nothing on them for most of the way, but a bucket and a broom on the rougher side, and where they are, at the far right, there's just a little bit of a garden or vegetable patch edging into the otherwise orderly picture.