Let’s open the doors to the mid-17th century, when the cultural and artistic world of the Dutch centered in on Amsterdam and a man’s home, was truly his palace…
‘View of the palace and gardens of Versailles, seen from the avenue de Paris in. Versailles circa 1668’, by Pierre Patel.
Contextually, the Dutch put little emphasis on the aristocracy, especially when we compare them with their European neighbours. I need only mention ‘The Sun King’ (Louis XIV) to conjure the grandeur (and efforts in fashion, culture and the arts) of the Baroque at Versailles in France (learnt from an illustrious Italy) – the Netherlands had no such courtly trends, rather, the culture of luxury creeped in little by little.
Jan ver der Hayden (1637-1712), ‘View of Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam’, c.1670.
By the mid-century, Amsterdam had it’s own ‘little-palaces’, the canal-facing homes built on mercantile wealth, which borrowed from Italy not only the fine stone sold to Louis XIV, but also the classical manner towards architecture. These houses were being bought up by a ‘nouveau riche’: magistrates, rich merchants, directors of big trading companies and investors, all of whom wanted a slice of the cultural pie.
All of these men had wives and, a more feminine sensibility would feed into outfitting the ‘home’, an entirely domestic phenomenon whereby private life could come to the fore.
Gillis van Tilborgh (c. 1625 – c. 1678), ‘Family Portrait’, Second half of the 17th century.
Put simply, from their European neighbours and international trade, the Dutch people were afforded a new culture of luxury: An increase in wealth meant that they would learn to refine their tastes through ownership, material goods and display.
How would one signify wealth and taste? Through luxury trade, fine imported goods: Think linens, ebony, turtle shell, wrought silver and oriental porcelain. Think, an interest in manners, fashion and social influence. French was the standard, the mark of elegance. Aristocratic tastes and pretensions caught on like the common cold.
Jan Steen (1626-79), ‘ Easy Come, Easy Go’ : the artist eating oysters in an interior, 1660.
Interiors and furnishings are fascinating as they provide the setting for the exploration of wealth and taste. What we can learn from material culture, from inventories, diaries and private possessions informs us about behavior, forming a picture of the people who populated a world entirely separate from our own.
A subject close to my heart? Women in history. I find people, places and stories utterly fascinating. Whether it be set dressing, the historical accuracy of period dramas or the costumes worn by the characters – I’ve become awfully picky, with a keen eye for the minutest of detail. This was something which was very much relevant to my choice of dissertation topic: Dollhouse culture.
It’s a complex web of connections which I will try my hardest to unravel. Let’s look through doors and windows into social history, a tableau of events in perfect miniature, be it a painting or a fully-fledged dollhouse of the period. I want you, like myself, to see worlds within worlds and the opportunities available to women, at that time, to express themselves.
Portrait of a Family in an Interior, 1678, Emanuel de Witte
Looking through Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, something will become particularly evident: domestic themes, scenes of the everyday, were heavily prevalent in the visual market. The Dutch had an entirely domestic vocabulary. They weren’t so much interested in the grand schemes of mythological painting as they were in reality and appearances. A pride was taken in what you could hold, in your home and the particular aspirations and preoccupations of a given family.
Here, I shall add that we are looking at the wealthiest – the canal home owners, whose inventories reach back to Haarlem. I want to focus on greater luxuriance, on fashionable occupants and the big to-do. Were the Dutch house proud? You bet they were!
Cover illustration by Katie Katie Tooke, taken from ‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton, 2014.
I was fascinated by the existence of the dollhouse in 17th Century Holland and its place, for women, in a Dutch culture of wealth and status. The dollhouse functioned on so many levels: As a signifier denoting taste… as a prop for display… as a reflection of material culture, consumption and domesticity.
We’re going to look at some lavishly and expensively decorated examples, taken from three Petronella’s (de la Court, Dunois, Oortman) and a Sara Rothe – all of who were living between 1624 and 1751. Still in existence today, their dollhouses’ tell us not only about the accumulation of fine, rare objects, but, also about the stylistic aspirations, expectations and shaping of affluent Dutch society.
Like paintings, the dollhouse provides the viewer with a glimpse into the contemporary tastes and fashions of a particular mindset, one which was carefully crafted to convey particular themes and social ideals.
I am going to show you a world of appearances and the link between visual and social history…
For Part 2 in the Worlds Within Worlds series, please follow this link
‘Dollshouses’, Rijks Museum, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio/works-of-art/dolls-houses [accessed 17 September 2016].
Abraham-Van der Mark, Eva, Successful Home Birth and Midwifery: The Dutch Model (Het Spinhuis, 1996).
Sutton, P C., Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1984).