Monday, September 4, 2017

17th Century Dollhouses in the Rijksmuseum

Dollhouses were common in the seventeenth century, but the ones that survive are anything but child’s play. They combine the cabinet of curiosities- strange and wonderful specimens of art and nature collected by the rich to show off their wealth, taste, and education- with the cult of domesticity that grew up in the seventeenth century. Three Dutch dollhouses from the late 1600s survive. The houses of Petronella Oortman and Petronella Dunois are in the Rijksmuseum, while the house of Petronella de la Court is in the Centraal Museum. Their collections are virtually complete and have been added to since their creation in the late 1600s, and the detail with which they were decorated can give us marvelous information about life in New Netherland and Dutch New York.

Many of the rooms of dollhouses are grander than almost anything in New Netherland, but there are humbler rooms as well. The kitchens of all three seventeenth-century houses preserve the workspace of the seventeenth-century cook. Oortman drew on the Netherlands’ large supply of silver miniatures (such toys are mentioned in the 1690s inventory of Margaretha Van Varick) to stock her house, and her cook room displays tiny silver dishes, colanders, a spoon rack with spoons, and, astonishingly, two chickens on a spit in a reflector oven.

All three houses also have cellars to store food and drink. Dunois’s cellar shelves hold tiny pies, rolls, and a cow’s head as well as herbs in jars covered with bits of leather. Barrels of butter sit on the floor and salted fish and a rolling pin and breadboard hang from nails high up on the walls, free from the damp and any attack by mice or rats. All three cellars placed the supplies of beer and wine behind a locked grill; such a grill still survives today in the cellar of the Cornelis Wynkoop house in Marbletown, New York.  Beer barrels marked with the signs of local breweries are tapped, their contents ready to be decanted into a pitcher or bottle; in Oortman’s cellar, bottles of green and brown glass stand on a shelf drilled with holes, probably so the bottles could be stored upside down.
The dollhouses are also a source of information for textiles. Dutch inventories list huge numbers of household linens, and each dollhouse has its own linen room to iron, starch, and arrange them all. Dunois’s best room has an exquisite cabinet filled with tablecloths, napkins, and lengths of linen very much like the ones that filled the kasten of New Netherland households.

There are also fabric furnishings. Oortman’s tapestry room is named for the chain stitch tapestry on the walls, and her lying-in room is hung with red velvet. Meanwhile Dunois’s salon is hung with pale yellow silk and her lying-in-room in bright Indian chintz- perhaps a similar fabric to Jan Gerritsen van Marcken’s “small red flowered curtains.” To a modern observer the effect is overwhelming, but a seventeenth-century viewer would have known immediately that a room decorated that way would have required a fortune in silk or imported cotton print.

Another relic of Dutch settlement that has not survived is the artwork. Petronella de la Court was an art collector, and she filled her dollhouse with dozens of paintings, prints, and sculptures. Dunois and Oortman also collected tiny examples of artwork. But this was not the only way the Dutch enjoyed art in their homes. The salons of Oortman and de la Court are painted with landscapes that completely fill the walls. Oortman’s front hallway features grisaille paintings in shallow niches, imitating marble statues (grisaille painting is done entirely in shades of black, white, and gray). Ceilings, shutters, chimneypieces, and cupboards are painted, as are pieces of furniture. A few examples of such decoration survive from New Netherland and Dutch New York. A kas owned by the Monmouth County Historical Society and dated between 1700 and 1740 is beautifully painted with fruit and flowers in shades of gray. The Van Bergan overmantel, showing the landscape and people of the Van Bergen farm, has survived, and the cradle in Crailo’s Dutch room, dated 1680-1740, still has its original painted garlands.

The final aspect of Dutch home life that these dollhouses portray was actually outside the house. Both Oortman and de la Court included gardens in their dollhouses; Oortman’s was an extra box that could be inserted behind the front hall containing a tiny garden. This has been lost, but a painting of the house from about 1710, also in the Rijksmusum, shows a fountain and statues, as well as trees arranged around a pool.

Vegetable gardens, herb gardens and orchards certainly existed in New Netherland. But the Castello Plan, a detailed map of New Amsterdam in the 1660s, shows many formal gardens as well. De la Court’s garden room gives us an idea of what we might have found there. It shows classical statues, a small pergola, and flowerpots holding small fruit trees. The Dutch love of fruit was recorded by Adraien van der Donck, and the list of fruits grown in New Netherland included cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, persimmons, currants, figs, and gooseberries, as well as wild grapes. For the doll inhabitants of de la Court’s miniature house, this garden would have represented a source of fresh and preserved fruit for the family. The garden also includes plants grown for their beauty such as rosebushes and, against the left wall, a cheerful North American import- a sunflower. 

To see these dollhouses online, search “doll’s house” at and “de la Court” at www. This article also drew on the book The 17th-century Dolls’ Houses of the Rijkmuseum.

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