Worlds Within Worlds Part 3: Wealthy Dutch Women in the 17th Century

Copy of Copy of 17th Century Amsterdam (2)

Please note: This article follows on from part 1 (Mid-17th Century Amsterdam) and part 2 (Dutch Preoccupations in the 17th Century) of my written web series on Dutch Dollhouse Culture.

At this time, hobbies for women related to material culture, consumption and domesticity so, textiles, shopping, ladylike activity, charity work and the running of a household. The dollhouse, or, “poppenhuis”, was one of these hobbies. We can trace the fashion and curiosity for creating objects in miniature to Germany where toys for children included heavily ornamented dollhouses. In the Netherlands, attention shifted to women as wives and mothers and thus, the trend adapted. Now, it was adult women who came to own replicas of their homes and to collect pieces for the interiors. This was seen as another way to reinforce the great cult of domesticity!


Engravings by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607 – 1677), circa 1645.

It’s significant that these dollhouses’ carried a highly aesthetic function: The contents could be arranged and then revealed by opening the cabinet doors, creating a pleasurable mix of anticipation, participation, concealment and abundance [Barber]. This was a secret world, a hidden world, to be viewed by the beholder with a certain reverence and sense of expectation.

What else then, was the purpose of a dollhouse? Popular interpretation classes them as objects that represented the wealth, status, and privilege of their female collectors. Female collectors who had money to spend, i.e. a hobby for rich women with a lot of time on their hands. They were indulging themselves. Then comes folly and frivolity – the need for ever-more fanciful objects. With the financial backing of their husbands, hobbies and habits could be fostered and, from that, they would only continue to grow…


Jacob Appel (1680-1751), Dolls’ House of Petronella Oortman, c. 1710, parchment (animal material), 87 x 69 cm.

The wealthy female buyer had close ties to the home and polite society. We’re going to look at notable 17th century exemplars held in collections, which had belonged to women who represented wives in this position. Their names, Petronella de la Court (1624 – 1707), Petronella Dunois (1650 – 1695) and Petronella Portman (1656 – 1716) – with another non-Petronella, Sarah Rothe (1699 – 1751).

Were we to compare inventories from the century with contemporary examples of the Dutch dollhouse, you would find that they selectively and closely reflected each other in terms of possessions and ownership. Sara Rothe, for example, noted down the contents of her dollhouse to include: paintings, cutlery in pure silver, a buffet, ceramics and complete library. Accounting for these objects was no different to accounting for those belonging to her own household, each having a significant worth attached. So, were the women’s actual houses as well-appointed as their dollhouses’? Well, dollhouses’ certainly showed objects in abundance: All of these were of exquisite quality, genuinely invested.

The dollhouses’ of Petronella Oortman and Petronella de la Court give grand examples of furnishing choices within the homes of Amsterdam’s most affluent citizens. As crucial visual sources, they mimick upper-class fashions of the time, perfectly replicating authentic materials in miniature. Whether this be animal fur and leather seat coverings, marble mantelpieces or fine linens, a dollhouse can read as a catalogue of (or indeed a lesson in) the decorative arts.

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Poppenhuis van Petronella Oortman, anonymous, c. 1686 – c. 1710, wood (plant material), 225 x 190 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Let’s start with the dollhouse of Petronella Oortman: In sequence, her cabinet presents a tapestry room, working kitchen, best kitchen, lying-in room, garden, drawing room, nursery, workroom and linen room. Each of these rooms is decorated according to its purpose and societal function: On the bottom floor, traditional tapestry cloth lines the tapestry room, the best kitchen displays fine tableware, with an encasement of porcelain and the lying-in-room is ceremoniously draped, curtained and partitioned by an alcove and folding screen. The hallway floors are marble throughout, leading to a resplendent drawing room complete with mural, fireplace, oil painting, upholstered chairs, playing table and lacquered furniture. The house’s top rooms are reserved for a gilded, silken nursery and further working rooms used by those in the household’s service.

It’s important to note that Petronella Oortman was the sole curator of her dollhouse, employing the services of master craftsmen, artists and specialists to render interior furnishings and decoration in miniature. For example, Willem Frederiksz was commissioned to provide the game room’s mural and Johannes Voorhout was responsible for the decorative scheme of the tapestry room. In addition to this, porcelain was imported from China; glassblowers, silversmiths and basket-weavers were called on and a turtle shell cabinet with pewter inlays was executed by a French cabinetmaker taking residence in Amsterdam.

Decoratively speaking, Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse could be an instance where the presented interiors were used to represent personal dreams and aspirations. Indeed, it demonstrates expertise in execution and good taste, which is supported by its display purpose as a work of art within the home. Petronella, unwittingly, has mastered both her home and its possessions by owning a dollhouse. Within it, she is able to reign over a privileged, ideal and balanced collection – one which represents the privileged, ideal and balanced life she would have sought to emulate. Perhaps then, this is why it would have featured as a showpiece in sessions conducted by Petronella with visitors to the household. The dollhouse worked as a conversation piece, designed to be talked around and admired. Sometimes, these sessions would last an entire evening!

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Het Poppenhuis van Petronella de la Court, 1670 – 1690, Oak, walnut veneered with olive wood and rosewood, Amsterdam, Central Museum, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Petronella de la Court’s dollhouse was an exact replica of her actual house in the later 17th century. Otherwise known as the ‘Utrecht Dollhouse’, Petronella de la Court’s dollhouse consisted of a mighty 1,600 pieces of furniture, paintings and 28 dolls – all of which were specially commissioned during the period. This particular dollhouse is ideal for study, as it features ten rooms in a state of competition, referencing numerous paintings and decorative objects belonging to the household. This was no mere flight of fancy!

Were women collectors, then, all that different from their male counterparts? A dollhouse was shown in a cabinet, just like a kunstkammer. A dollhouse was made for display, spectatorship and collecting, just like a kunstkammer. These evident traits lead me on to express the importance of female ownership and acquisition, even on a miniature scale. It cannot be understated that, at this time, women were actively commissioning furnishings and progressively accumulating them for purposes of their own design. Given such a practice, one cannot help but notice the associations shared with male collecting and connoisseurship – which seems to dominate our understanding of the antiques trade.

The dollhouse allowed for a woman to become the expert, the connoisseur, the master of taste. She alone was the authority on its contents and the rules of decoration: Governing, owning and ruling her own little world. The macrocosm (Dutch society at large) becomes the microcosm (the dollhouse) and this shows us a feminine control, a claiming, of what was within a woman’s reach: Her home.

To start from the beginning, please follow the link to Part 1/3 of this written web series

To learn about Dutch Preoccupations in the mid-17th century, please follow the link to Part 2/3 of this written web series

Fancy a change of scenery? Get swept away to the world of Versailles

Sources Used:

Barber, Rachel, ‘The Utensil for Marriage? The Dutch Kitchen Cabinet and the Place of Women in the 17th Century’, V&A Museum of Childhood, [accessed 12 September 2016].

‘Dollhouses’, Rijksmuseum, [accessed 17 September 2016].

Flanagan, Mary, Critical Play: Radical Game Design (MIT Press, 2009).

Hollander, Martha, An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art (University of California Press, 2002).

Moseley Christian, Michelle, ‘17th century Pronk Poppenhuisen: Domestic Space and the Ritual Function of Dutch Dollhouses’, Home Cultures, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2010.

Skelly, Julia, The Uses of Excess in Visual and Material Culture, 1600-2010 (Ashgate Publishing, 2014).

Sue, Caryl, ’Dutch Dollhouse: Miniature version of a privileged life’, The National Geographic, 25 July 2013. [accessed 12 September 2016].

Thank You-2

5 thoughts on “Worlds Within Worlds Part 3: Wealthy Dutch Women in the 17th Century

  1. Hi I’m P.Oortman follower, and want to add and from what I see that this LADY was a very neatly person and very precise in how a person’s living space shut looks like in general. And surely she was a Master in room dressing, one of P.Oortman’s followers.
    Very precise neatly person.

    Liked by 1 person

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