Oud Holland

Review of: 'Heroines, harpies and housewives' (2020)

March 2021

Review of: Martha Moffitt Peacock, Heroines, harpies and housewives: Imaging women of consequence in the Dutch Golden Age, Leiden [Brill] 2020

Ideally and generally speaking, early modern Dutch women were expected to marry and manage the family’s household. In the Netherlands of the seventeenth century, Jacob Cats’s moralistic poem Houwelick (Marriage, of 1625) – which set out the expectations that society purportedly placed on women – was second in popularity only to the Bible. By the middle of the seventeenth century, more than 50,000 copies had been sold. By 1700, one in four Dutch citizens who owned books, owned a copy of Cats’ treatise.1 Not surprisingly, the poem has informed many scholars’ interpretation of Dutch visual culture. Cats’ ideal woman was, above all, in service of her husband and of her household. As a bride, she should be:

"Not too sweet, not too sour,
Not too meek, not too domineering,
Not too fast, not too slow,

Not too delicate, not too rude,
Not too thin, not too fat,
Not too dirty, not too clean."2

A virtuous wife, in turn, would exhibit: “submission, fidelity, kindness, morality, shame, no idleness, modesty.” She should further, “show herself faithful and loving towards her husband, affectionate towards her children, appealing to the neighbours, busy at home, temperate in the street, sparing with words and above all keeping a close watch on her shame and honour.”Fittingly, the illustrated frontispiece for Houwelick, composed as a pyramid – or the steps that punctuate the course of life – succinctly set out seventeenth-century gender expectations for women. The phases of a woman’s life – noted as virgin, spinster, bride, wife, mother, widow – are designed around one ultimate objective: finding, and then pleasing, a suitable husband.

Houwelick has informed two principal strands of analysis in art history. Some scholars, like Eddy de Jongh, interpret works such as Nicolaes Maes’s Woman spinning (1650-1660) and Emanuel de Witte’s Kitchen interior (1660s) as the visual manifestation of women fulfilling the expectations set for them by men: cooking, cleaning and clothing their husbands and children (figs. 1 and 2).4 These women have little say in the matter; they are confined to the domestic space by the will of a ruling patriarchy. Hanging on the walls, these genre scenes fulfill a didactic purpose for the women of the household. Other scholars, such as Wayne Franits, emphasise that seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings projected (and reinforced) notions of ideal femininity and domesticity.

Martha Moffitt Peacock’s Heroines, harpies, and housewives: Imaging women of consequence in the Dutch Golden Age, challenges this scholarship and asks the reader to consider the perspective of – often forgotten – actors in the interpretation of seventeenth-century gender expectations and dynamics: women.

Left: Cover of Heroines, harpies and housewives: Imaging women of consequence in the Dutch Golden Age.

Middle: fig. 1 Nicolaes Maes, Woman spinning, 1650-1660, oil on canvas, 63 x 55 cm., Rijksmuseum, inv. SK-A-246.

Right: fig. 2 Emanuel de Witte, Kitchen interior, 1660s, oil on canvas on mounted panel, 48.6 x 41.6 cm., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, inv. 47.1314.  

As Peacock notes in her introduction, early modern Dutch women had the highest literacy rate in early modern Europe. They possessed many legal rights (even as married women), which enabled them to sue for divorce, enter into business contracts and own property.6 They managed the household, arranging for supplies to be delivered and keeping the accounts. They were key partners in their husbands’ businesses. They were consumers. The disconnect between the interpretation of images of women as submissive subjects and their lived reality is at the core of Peacock’s book.

The volume represents the culmination of the argument that Peacock began formulating in her essays ‘Geertruydt Roghman and the female perspective in seventeenth-century Dutch genre imagery’, ‘Paper as power: carving a niche for the female artist in the work of Joanna Koerten’, and ‘Domesticity in the public sphere’.7 Reduced to its essence, Peacock’s argument is that seventeenth-century Dutch women possessed a certain level of agency and power and could influence the depiction and cultural perception of women. Accordingly, the interpretation of images of women from that period should be nuanced and reflect this female perspective (or the ‘female gaze’), as opposed to echoing only the staunch patriarchal dictums of Cats and his ilk.

Other art historians have written about the role of early modern Dutch women in visual culture. In addition to Eddy de Jongh and Wayne Franits, discussed above, scholars such as Mariët Westermann, Elizabeth Alice Honig, Heidi de Mare and Michelle Moseley-Christian have explored various aspects of this topic. Westermann has focused on painting. One of her arguments is that in light of the overwhelming popularity of Cats’ Houwelick and conduct literature in the seventeenth century, most Dutch genre paintings made after 1625 (the year Houwelick first appeared) conveyed the ideals (and, sometimes, critiques) of courtship, marriage and the home.Elizabeth Alice Honig examined how early modern Dutch women navigated the boundaries between amateurship and professionalism and turned to art media other than the fine arts;9 she has also explored the contradictions between the role of women as consumers in the marketplace and their status as housewives, alluring but virtuous.10 Heidi de Mare has considered the place of women in what she argues is a strict dichotomy between the public and the private sphere, while Michelle Moseley-Christian has studied the didactic and performative aspects of luxurious dollhouses (pronk poppenhuisen).11 In a welcome shift, scholarship on early modern Dutch women has increased substantially in the last three decades or so.

Peacock investigates many of the themes addressed by the scholars named above, but comes to conclusions that in some instances expands upon – and in other cases contradicts – their positions. Less usual for an art historian, she delves into the scholarship of early modern economic, socio-cultural and literary history in developing her argument that the popular fixation on housewives which arose during the seventeenth century should be understood not only as a result of a powerful patriarchy, but also as a reflection of the power and agency of women.

The first chapter sets out the road map to Peacock’s argument in a nutshell and to the book’s subsequent three chapters, each of which addresses one of the topoi of the title: heroines (chapter two), harpies (chapter three), and housewives (chapter four). She writes that from the time of the Dutch Revolt, a number of women had been hailed as heroines and depicted as such. The imaging of such important women had the, “forceful ability to shape the cultural opinions regarding the female sex that would be enabling for women generally in this society.” (2) Hence, the choice of the subtitle for the book, Imaging women of consequence in the Dutch Golden Age – where ‘consequence’ takes on the double-meaning of significance or importance, as well as result or effect. In light of women’s involvement in shaping contemporary gender norms, Peacock’s argument follows, art historians cannot ignore that influence in constructing the gender narrative of the period. This position is not without controversy, as Peacock herself notes. As mentioned above, it stands against the work of Eddy de Jongh and Mariët Westermann, amongst others.  

Peacock spends much of the first chapter reviewing the state of the literature in relation to her hypothesis and providing a brief synopsis in support of her departure from that literature. As is clear in this discussion, a conception of the public sphere that is very broad and, indeed, appears to include all public spaces is central to Peacock’s analysis. Construed as such, narratives which constrain early modern Dutch women to the home are untenable, as evidenced by the participation of women in markets and their presence in public. Rather than accepting a rigid dichotomy between the private, domestic sphere and the public sphere (as De Mare does), Peacock submits that a more fluid distinction existed. In taking this position, she joins the ranks of scholars such as Honig, who noted the ‘perverse ideal’ of requiring women to stay home, but also go to the market, and literary historian Martine van Elk, who has explored the changing boundaries of the private and public spheres as experienced by early modern female authors in England and the Dutch Republic.12

Chapter two contains an overview of the origins and use of the typology of the Dutch female heroine, including the female warriors Kenau Simonsdr. Hasselaer, Magdalena Moons (whom Peacock argues entered the realm of military heroes due to her courage during the siege of Leiden) and the intellectual Anna Maria van Schurman, known as ‘The Star of Utrecht’. Peacock argues that the numerous and popular visual representations of these heroines contributed in establishing a, “cultural tradition of revering powerful women” (34), and that imagery of heroines, “provided important archetypes for women hoping to similarly exercise their agency in constructing opportunities for power and influence.” (317)

Left: fig. 3 Nicolaas Braeu, The battle for the trousers, after Karel van Mander, c. 1608-1666, engraving, 236 x 170 mm., Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1904-322.

Middle: fig. 4 Johann Theodor de Bry, The battle for the trousers, after Gillis van Breen, after Karel van Mander, 1596, engraving, 109 x 86 mm., Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-BI-5214.

Right: fig. 5 Geertruydt Roghman, Woman cooking, 1648-1650, engraving, 213 x 171 mm., Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-OB-4230.

In chapter three, Peacock studies the imagery of harpies – women whose power and control over men and dominion are cause for great concern, and mockery. As Peacock points out, the so-called ‘Battle of the Trousers’ (Strijd om de broek) was a frequent trope in Netherlandish art from the second half of the sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century (although it had appeared elsewhere as early as medieval times). A design by Karel van Mander, for example, was reprised by Nicolaas Braeu, Gillis van Breen and Johann Theodor de Bry (figs. 3 and 4). For Peacock these images, “reveal angst over actual female power that is not easily laughed away as comic entertainment.” (310) She argues that the proliferation of these images, particularly during the first half of the seventeenth century, suggests that men were uncomfortable with the increasingly visible position of women in society. However, Peacock has found that the production of these images diminished and softened during the second half of the seventeenth century, which she attributes to a growing acceptance of the power and role of women. Like Natalie Zemon Davis, Peacock argues that images of women ‘in charge’ could also give license to women to rebel against their own circumstances.13

The arguments set out in chapters two and three buttress chapter four, in which Peacock examines the explosion of imagery of housewives during the seventeenth century. She has found that, as the seventeenth century progressed, images of housewives began to ‘attract artistic interest’ for their own sake and be portrayed more positively. (317) Peacock posits that the cultural respect of heroines and the increased acceptance of powerful women (as evidenced in the decreased popularity of ‘harpy imagery’) contributed to the depiction of women in a positive light, and as important and respected members of Dutch society. She illustrates her point through the close examination and analysis of a series of prints of women at work by Geertruydt Roghman (1625-c. 1651).14 In these images, as Peacock points out, women are not displayed as objects of desire or ridicule by men. By devising innovative compositions, for example by showing a woman from the back or from the back in three-quarter length view, Roghman focuses the viewer’s attention on the task at hand and on the skill of the woman in accomplishing it (fig. 5).  

Drawing from legal, political, economic and religious histories in her interpretation of visual culture; some of Peacock’s arguments are particularly compelling. For example, she develops her thesis regarding the positive depiction of housewives in part based on the findings of economic historians, concerning the enormous contributions of early modern Dutch women as economic actors – including as partners in their husbands’ businesses. She also looks to contemporary literature’s descriptions of women as educators of children, providers of charity and as necessary to the social fabric. As Peacock makes clear: a culture that relies on (and acknowledges its dependence upon) women to such an extent, would be unlikely to consistently oppress and moralise them within its visual culture. In a similar vein, she highlights the role of women as managers of the household and as essential family supports, as evidence for the proposition that depictions of women in domestic settings – like those of Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch and Jacob Vrel – would have been perceived as positive and respectful. After all, why would women, who spent a great deal of time in the home they shaped and maintained, want to be surrounded by negative and remonstrating images?

Other times, however, Peacock’s focus on the positive impact of female agency and power, risks giving the impression that women were generally seen as being as competent and able and were as free and as respected as men – which was not the case. For example, it is true that wealthy and well-connected women could become regents of institutions and exercise functions in those roles that were equivalent to those of male regents (‘Women and Civic Institutions’). However, women could only become regents in institutions that related to their roles as wives and mothers: caring for the sick, the orphaned, the poor and the reeducation of lost souls. There were no women on the board of directors of the Dutch East India Company; nor were there women enrolled at the Athenaeum Illustre in Amsterdam. That Anna Maria van Schurman was lauded in visual culture and in literature, by men and women, did not mean that all women were encouraged or had the opportunity to learn Latin, read philosophy and correspond with the luminaries of the time (‘Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678): Her Network and Influence’, and, 333). The opportunities available to women still thoroughly depended on their own financial means; and on the education, connections and other opportunities that their fathers, husbands and brothers deemed appropriate and were capable of providing.   

This well-illustrated, comprehensive and methodically argued volume conveys a critical and unassailable point: a nuanced and more complete understanding of seventeenth-century Dutch visual culture, and of the role of women in relation to that culture, can only be achieved if one incorporates female perspectives (as those of artists, wives, patrons and viewers) into the analysis.

Catherine Powell, PhD Candidate
University of Texas at Austin
Samuel H. Kress Institutional Fellow
Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society

1 M. van Tilburg, 'Becoming a woman in the Dutch Republic: Advice literature for young adult women of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries', in The youth of early modern women. E. S. Cohen and M. Reeves (eds.), Amsterdam 2018, pp. 259-260. J. Cats, Houwelick. Dat is De gansche gelegentheyt des echten staets, Middelburg 1625. First printing STCN Record No. 840515898. There were at least 37 printings, and three editions of Houwelick between 1625 and 1779. Sizes included quarto, octavo and duodecimo, which would have increased the work’s affordability. The poem was available as a stand-alone text, as well as, in the eighteenth century, part of the complete works of Jacob Cats. See, further, the title in: Dutch Short Title Catalogue: http://picarta.nl/.

2 J. Cats, ‘Bruid’, Houwelyck, Middelburg 1625, pp. 51-55. http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/cats001huwe01_01/cats001huwe01_01_0004.php. English translation provided by the (DBNL), which has been revised and modernised by the author. 

3 J. Cats 1625 (note 2), p. 71.

4 E. de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw, Zwolle 1986.

5 W. Franits, Paragons of virtue: women and domesticity in seventeenth-century Dutch art, Cambridge 1995.

6 For a helpful overview of women’s rights in the Dutch Republic, and elsewhere in Europe, consider: A. Bellavitis, Women’s work and rights in early modern urban Europe, Cham 2018). D. van den Heuvel, Women and entrepreneurship: Female traders in the Northern Netherlands c. 1580-1815, Amsterdam 2007. A. Schmidt, ‘Contested Authority: Working women in leading positions in the early modern Dutch urban economy’, in Women and work in premodern Europe: Experiences, relationships and cultural representation, c. 1100-1800. M. L. Bailey, T. M. Colwell, and J Hotchin (eds.), London 2018, pp. 214-236.

7 M. M. Peacock, ‘Geertruydt Roghman and the female perspective in seventeenth-century Dutch genre imagery’, in Woman's art journal 14 (1993/1994), pp. 3-10. ‘Paper as power: carving a niche for the female artist in the work of Joanna Koerten’, in Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 62, Leiden 2013, pp. 238-265. ‘Domesticity in the Public Sphere’, in Sisters, saints and sinners: gender and northern art in medieval and early modern Europe. J. E. Carroll and A. G. Stewart (eds.), London 2017.

8 M. Westermann, A worldly art: The Dutch Republic, 1585-1718, New Haven 2005, p. 119.

9 E. A. Honig, ‘The art of being "artistic": Dutch women's creative practices in the seventeenth century’, Woman's art journal 22 (Autumn 2001-Winter 2002), pp. 31-39.

10 E. A. Honig, 'Desire and domestic economy',The art bulletin 83 (2001), pp. 294-315.

11 H. de Mare, 'The domestic boundary as ritual area in seventeenth-century Holland', in Urban rituals in Italy and the Netherlands: Historical contrasts in the use of public space, architecture, and the urban environment, Assen 1993, pp. 109-131. Michelle Moseley-Christian, ‘Seventeenth-century pronk poppenhuisen: Domestic space and the ritual function of Dutch dollhouses for women’, Home cultures 7 (2010), pp. 241-363.

12 E. A. Honig, ‘Desire and Domestic Economy’, The art bulletin 83 (2001), p. 307.

13 N. Z. Davis, ‘Women on top’, in Merry Wiesner-Hanks (ed.), Women and gender in the early modern world, New York, 2016, pp. 56-81.

14 The date of death of Roghman has not been established with precision. Peacock places her death at c. 1651, but it has sometimes been placed several years later.
Catherine Powell, 'Review of: Heroines, harpies, and housewives: Imaging women of consequence in the Dutch Golden Age', Oud Holland Reviews, March 2021.