Oud Holland

Review of: 'Gouden vrouwen van de 17de eeuw' (2020)

August 2022


Review of: Judith, Noorman (ed.), Gouden vrouwen van de 17de eeuw. Van kunstenaars tot verzamelaars. Zwolle [W Books], 2020

With Gouden vrouwen van de 17de eeuw. Van kunstenaars tot verzamelaars (Golden women of the seventeenth century, from artists to collectors), art historian Judith Noorman has pulled off a truly herculean feat: successfully guiding a group of undergraduate students through the production of a co-authored, book-length scholarly publication. The volume’s chapters were written during a single academic quarter in 2019, for an undergraduate art history course aptly titled ‘We schrijven een book’ (‘We’re writing a book’) that Noorman taught at the University of Amsterdam. The result is a beautifully illustrated compendium of biographical sketches of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Dutch women, all of whom are noteworthy for their activities within the sphere of visual and material culture. Written in a fresh and accessible style, this handbook will be equally as at home on the bookshelves of art historians and specialists in women’s history as on those of the curious museum go-er, and it further offers great value as a classroom text.

In its historical and geographical range, gendered bent, and biographical approach, Gouden vrouwen follows several forerunners: the volumes Met en zonder lauwerkrans: schrijvende vrouwen uit de vroegmoderne tijd 1550-1850 and Women’s writing from the Low Countries 1200-1875, both on women writers and both published by Amsterdam University Press, in 1997 and 2010 respectively, and Elck zijn waerom. Vrouwelijke kunstenaars in Belgie en Nederland 1500-1950/À chacun sa grâce: femmes artistes en Belgique et aux Pays-Bas 1500-1950, on female artists, published by Ludion in 1999.1 These earlier works are relatively broad in scope, including women from both the Northern and Southern Low Countries and spanning several hundred years; Gouden vrouwen, by contrast, homes in on the United Provinces in the seventeenth century. This allows for a more compact and manageable book and also invites the reader to draw connections between the individual accounts, creating a richly textured view onto Dutch women’s lives and activities during this period.

In the introduction Noorman gives a frank and transparent account of how the project came together, beginning with each student choosing a historical woman to research. Noorman’s own clear vision of the course’s goals and her established institutional network were clearly fundamental to the project’s success, and she recruited several outside experts: Johan de Bruijn, editor of W Books, Koos de Wilt, storyteller and art historian, and Maarten Hell, a former editor of and contributor to the Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland (a crucial resource on Dutch women’s history initiated by Els Kloek in 2003). One imagines that these experienced researchers helped hold the focus of such a large group and offered a valuable space for mentorship for the young authors. Noorman goes on to sketch the relevant (art) historical landscape, first touching on the issue of women artists’ (under)representation in museum collections and especially among the Dutch Old Masters, and then providing an overview of the status of early modern Dutch women according to scholarship. She gives a brief overview of our current understanding of the gender roles and ideologies in question, and points in particular to historical literature that offers insight into women’s activities as consumers of home furnishings, with the implication that women played key economic and taste-making roles.

Cover of Gouden vrouwen van de 17de eeuw. Van kunstenaars tot verzamelaars.

Left: fig. 1 Engraved by Anna Roemers Visscher, Berkemeyer (drinking glass), 1646, glass, 15x15.5x10.2 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, BK-NM-8186.

Middle left: fig. 2 Johanna Helena Herolt, Squash plants with mice and nuts, watercolor and drawing on vellum, c. 1691-1700, 28.9x37.6 cm., British Museum, London, SL,5279.27.

Middle right: fig. 3 Willem Wissing, Portrait of Mary Stuart II, c. 1685, oil on canvas, 124.5x102 cm., Royal Collections, The Hague, SC-0043.

Right: fig. 4 Anonymous Artist, Dolls’ house of Petronella Dunois, c. 1676, various materials (plant material, oak, ebony, cardboard, chintz, silk, gilding), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, BK-14656.

Noorman then defines the subjects of study in Gouden vrouwen, and it is here, with an inclusive approach to women and the arts, that the text feels most fully actualized and methodologically avant-garde. Noorman tells us that the book covers ‘34 kunstvrouwen’ (women of art): not only professional painters, sculptors and printmakers, but also women engaged as creative amateurs and in art forms less exulted by modern scholarship, as well as female collectors, patrons of the arts, and those who bought and sold artworks for profit. We are also introduced to lesser-known women like Catharina Backer (1689-1766), a prolific painter from a family of art lovers, Anna Roemers Visscher, (1583-1651) (fig. 1), a successful glass etcher, Adriana Bredehof (1600-1644), who patronized and sat for Frans Hals, Johanna Helena Herolt (1668-after 1723), who followed in her mother Maria Sybilla Merian’s footsteps as a scientific illustrator (fig. 2), and Barber Jacobs (1549-1624), who ran businesses dealing in artworks and other goods. Many readers will recognize famous names like those of painters Rachel Ruysch (1665-1750), and Judith Leyster (1609-1660), as well as Mary Stuart II (1662-1694) (fig. 3), art collector. Gouden vrouwen thus explicitly and demonstratively pushes for expanding both our understanding of historical Dutch women’s lives and the purview of Western art history to include a broader range of objects. As such the book falls in line with current trends in scholarship and museology, and contributes to what is I think a much-needed shift away from traditional categories (in particular hierarchies of ‘fine art’ vs. ‘decorative art,’ crafts, or illustration) and towards thinking through the more historically-grounded perspective of material culture.2

The introduction further addresses current debates around power, privilege and gender, which one takes to have been topics of considered discussion during the course. The term ‘Golden Age’, long used to refer to the Dutch seventeenth century, when global trade enterprises brought incredible prosperity to the Netherlands, and now under criticism precisely because of the brutal colonial and capitalistic practices that yielded that wealth, is not employed lightly.3 In the end the student authors decided to keep it as a framework. This is not explained, and one wonders if it was just for the term’s convenience as a shorthand for time and place, or simply because Gouden vrouwen sounds quite catchy in Dutch. Noorman further acknowledges that the book largely reproduces history’s longstanding class biases, shining a light on wealthy actors while middle- and lower-class women – who represent the vast majority of female lived experience – remain invisible. This focus on the elite and exceptionally accomplished is inherent to the biographical tradition, though, and to formulate and execute a project that challenges these hierarchies would I think be beyond the scope of an undergraduate course. The awareness with which the authors treat these issues is in any case a good step forward.

The biographical entries constitute the remainder of the book. They are presented in simple alphabetical order, and this choice allows the reader to organically notice convergences and contrasts across them while the consistent attention paid to visual culture provides thematic cohesion throughout. The young authors have all admirably risen to the challenge of producing concise, compelling and well-researched accounts of individual historical women, which demonstrate the great variety of questions that can be addressed, and avenues of inquiry pursued, by employing material culture approaches to their subjects. For instance, the dollhouses owned by some upper-class women, of which a few famous examples still survive (fig. 4), are revealed not only as reflections of the life-sized spaces and objects they purport to represent, but also as windows onto consumer culture, fashion, aesthetics and creativity within the domestic sphere. The material qualities and technical practices of glass etching, engraving, paper cutting, embroidery and other art forms are used as evidence for female practitioners’ lived experiences and knowledge. And the authors further treat women who have previously only been characterized through their relationship to male artists, the latter’s daughters, wives, apprentices, servants, or models, as historical actors in their own right. This in turn opens up refreshing new ways of looking at well-known works like Rembrandt’s Woman bathing in a stream, which likely depicts the art and rarities dealer Hendrickje Stoffels (1626-1663).

The only point of criticism that I have about this volume is one that applies to the field of Dutch early modern women’s history more generally: it often lacks a geographically comparative framework as well as broader engagement with current synthetic and theoretical literature. There can also be a tendency to take for granted entrenched, nationalistic narratives about the seventeenth-century Netherlands – that innovation, global aspirations, (proto-)capitalism, secularism and a newly ‘scientific’ view of the world were all to some extent particular to Dutchness, and concomitantly that the Dutch conceptualisation of the domestic sphere and women’s roles in society was unique. If we are to continue making progress in bringing our histories closer to the truths of the past then we must constantly be testing and interrogating such notions.

The works cited in Gouden vrouwen belie that blinkered approach: the sources listed in the introduction’s bibliography – with the sole exception of two texts by Joan Kelly from the 1970s – exclusively concern Dutch topics, and the students’ biographical entries are similarly narrow in scope. There were of course pressing issues of time and practicality at work in this project, but what important insights might the authors, and we as readers, have gained by placing their own ‘golden women’ in conversation with some of the more current work on early modern women and the arts in other areas of or across Europe?How would the lively debates led by feminist scholars like Merry Wiesner-Hanks, Mary Garrard and many others, particularly in terms of economics, representation, and agency, help to better sharpen our understanding of these Dutch women?5 Such contextualisation could only strengthen the vibrant field of scholarship on early modern Dutch women and enhance the quality of teaching on the topic. Nevertheless, Gouden vrouwen is indeed a remarkable achievement. The authors can take pride in their contribution to its diverse areas of early modern scholarship, and in helping to restore early modern Dutch women to their rightful place in our historical consciousness. It would be wonderful to see their important work made accessible to a larger, international audience through an English translation of the book.

Sarah Joan Moran
Utrecht University

1 R. Schenkeveld-Van der Dussen, K. Porteman, L. Van Gemert, and P. Couttenier (eds.), Met en zonder lauwerkrans: schrijvende vrouwen uit de vroegmoderne tijd 1550-1850, van Anna Bijns tot Elise van Calcar, Amsterdam 1997; L. van Gemert, H. Joldersma, O. van Marion, D. van der Poel, and R. Schenkeveld-van der Dussen (eds.), Women's writing from the Low Countries 1200-1875. A bilingual anthology, Amsterdam 2011; K. Van der Stighelen, M. Westen, and M. Meijer (eds.), Elck zijn waerom. Vrouwelijke kunstenaars in Belgie en Nederland 1500-1950/À chacun sa grâce: femmes artistes en Belgique et aux Pays-Bas 1500-1950, Ghent 1999.

2 See Michael Yonan, 'Toward a fusion of art history and material culture studies', West 86th: A journal of decorative arts, design history, and material culture 18 (2011): pp. 232-248; Claudia Mattos, 'Whither art history?: Geography, art theory, and new perspectives for an inclusive art history', The Art Bulletin 96, no. 3 (2014): 259-64; B. De Munck and D. Lyna (eds.), Concepts of value in European material culture, 1500-1900. Farnham/Burlington 2016; R. Pascale. Art moves. The material culture of processions in Renaissance Perugia, Turnhout 2017; A. Gerritsen and R. Giorgio (eds.), Writing material culture history, London 2021.

3 C. E. Ariese, 'Amplifying voices: Engaging and disengaging with colonial pasts in Amsterdam', Heritage & society 13, no. 1-2 (2020): pp. 117-142.

4 See for example: J. D. Milam and M. Hyde, Women, art and the politics of identity in eighteenth-century Europe, London 2003; S. Barker (ed.), Women artists in early modern Italy: Careers, fame, and collectors, Turnhout 2016; K. A. McIver and C. Stollhans, Patronage, gender and the arts in early modern Italy: Essays in honor of Carolyn Valone, New York 2015.

5 See: J. Couchman, A. M. Poska, and K. A. McIver, The Ashgate research companion to women and gender in early modern Europe, London 2016; N. Broude and M. D. Garrard (eds.), The expanding discourse: Feminism and art history, second ed., New York 2018; N. Broude and M. D. Garrard (eds.), Reclaiming female agency. Feminist art history after postmodernism, Berkeley 2005; T. A. Meade and M. E. Wiesner-Hanks, A companion to global gender history, second ed., Hoboken 2021; M. E. Wiesner-Hanks, Women and gender in early modern Europe, fourth edition, Cambridge 2019.
Sarah Joan Moran, ‘Review of: Gouden vrouwen van de 17de eeuw. Van kunstenaars tot verzamelaars', Oud Holland Reviews, August 2022.