This painting by Pieter de Hooch evokes the modest virtues of home life: a house owner, her daughter and domestic helper pass their lives in surroundings as neatly kept as they are meticulously defined by the artist, extended through an archway and onto the street.
I feel a modest, tender-hearted kind of happiness as I contemplate this scene. Every architectural detail evokes a sense of stability, and integrity. The picture is divided vertically in two by the building, and united by a methodical grid of paving. Both the house and yard are old, however serene daylight gives them a warm glow. On the left, each mellowed brick and stone of the arched doorway has a distinctive colour and personality. On the right, the rudimentary trellis and raw planks of the log bin seem unpretentious. The maid’s bucket and broom tell us that, while things may be well-used, they are spotless.
The straightforward depiction of the building lends the figures a sense of permanence and stillness. The housewife gazes meditatively out onto the street, while the maid stands clean and calm, sharing a tender moment with the little girl. There is nothing fleeting about them. In fact, they appear timeless, free of the hurly-burly of the everyday. The inscription in the stone tablet over the arch reads, ‘This is in St Jerome’s vale if you wish to retire to patience and meekness. For we must first descend if we wish to be raised.’ This suggests that a meek patient life of domestic service leads to heaven more surely than overt religious observance.
This painting was made in a period when, for the first time, people began to work away from their homes, in the offices and factories of the city. This cultural change spawned a number of published treatises on how to manage the home, treatises that inspired this picture. In the last year, we have all experienced a cultural change in the opposite direction. Having been accustomed to leaving our houses to work each day, we’ve been confined to our ‘own backyards’. Our properties have become our offices and schools, as well as our homes. As a result, life has felt small and humdrum at times, and relationships with those we live with, strained. Perhaps there is a sense that if we were not stuck at home we would be free, and therefore, fulfilled and happy.
In the midst of our domestic confinement, this tranquil picture, so evocative of kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, offers the possibility of moving, not away, but inwards. Rather than seize my ‘freedom’ by changing location, I can allow myself to be ‘dipped in God’ (as D. H. Lawrence describes it), bringing the pain of my unfreedom to Him, and then return to where I am a little bit more free. After a fragmented and compromised day of remote meetings, maths lessons, wi-fi drop-outs and bureaucracy, this sun-drenched courtyard helps me slowly resume contact with my more authentic self. In a profound sense, it’s a home from home.
Image Credit: ‘The Courtyard of a House in Delft’, by Pieter de Hooch, 1658, National Gallery, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
For inspiration in writing this, I am indebted to Landmarks by Margaret Silf, The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton, and the National Gallery’s website.
By Tom Ingrey-Counter