Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dutch Domesticity in the Golden Age

A scene of Dutch domesticity painted by Pieter de Hooch in the mid-17th century. Note the bed in the wall, which was a typical . The interiors went from room to room usually without hallways. We see through the first room into what is probably the kitchen, with a pail by the door. The top part of the door opens out into a private garden. The mother is comforting her little daughter who has interrupted her work. A little dog waits patiently to go out. The rooms are clean and tidy and sparsely furnished, but there are paintings on the walls. Light comes in from the window. All of this is typical of the Dutch interiors painted in this period.

Thinking about the Dutch interiors of the 17th century was prompted by trying to find a housecleaning scene as a subject of art--for the most part unsuccessfully. It was the Dutch artists of the 17th century who were not afraid to paint a woman with a broom. Such art was a celebration of the domesticity pioneered by the families of the Dutch Golden Age. I consulted the fascinating study by Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea, to find out the story behind the beautiful paintings and spic-and-span interiors of Dutch homes.

A relatively wealthy Dutch home. The floors would be highly polished. Note the windows on the right. The Dutch placed windows wherever they could, because they liked the light but also because the homes had to be built as lightly as possible because the land was under sea level.

According to Rybczynski, "It was the opinion of more than one contemporary visitor that the Dutch prized three things above all else: first their children, second their homes, and third their gardens." The Netherlands was highly urbanized, in comparison with Europe and England, and was the first country to build up a substantial middle class. Dutch families became the first to begin to withdraw their nuclear families from the public thoroughfare of the medieval home. At the same time, the place of work began to be separated from the home, with the man dominating the workplace and the woman the home. Also at this point, children stayed at home for a far longer period than they did in the Middle Ages. This new distribution of people and place was key, according to Rybczynski, in creating a new sense of home that was dominated more by the woman than the man and that centered around the rearing of children within the privatized setting of the nuclear family.

A Dutch family portrait, a picture of domestic felicity reminiscent of the family portraits painted a century later in the new American republic.

Perhaps the front room of the house remained pubic, but the family withdrew to privacy upstairs (up was the only you could build). The homes for the most part were small, and Rybczynski notes, that this was fine, because only four or five people lived in them--the Dutch nuclear family, whereas in Paris, as many as 25 people lived in a house and shared a communal kitchen. And where most European urban residences opened out onto a public courtyard, the Dutch home opened out into the street in the front and at the back onto a private garden, as shown in the townscape below.

The Dutch also kept their homes extremely clean, and to the shock of foreign visitors, it was often necessary for visitors to take off their shoes upon entering the private quarters of a Dutch home. Nevertheless, it was known, the Dutch were not fastidious about their own personal cleanliness. Rybczynski believes that the cleanliness of the Dutch home was a way of drawing a boundary between the outside world and the inner sanctum of the home.

A woman in her back courtyard with her maid. The private garden was carefully maintained as now family, private space. In many Dutch paintings in which a woman appears with her maid, their clothes are not dissimilar, due to the onus the Dutch placed on simplicity and frugality.

Being small, the Dutch home could be cleaned by one person--the woman of the house. "Dutch society discouraged the hiring of servants and imposed special taxes on those who employed domestic help," Rybczynski reports. Dutch married women, regardless of their station or wealth, did most of their own household chores.

On the cleanliness of the Dutch homes, he writes the following:
"As every homemaker knows, the less furniture there is, the easier it is to keep a room clean, and this too may have had something to do with the relative sparseness of the Dutch interior, for these houses were spotlessly, immaculately, unbelievably clean. The well-scrubbed Dutch stoop is famous and has come to serve as an example of public exhibitionism and bourgeois pretentiousness.... but it was no pretense; the interiors of the Dutch houses were equally scrubbed and scoured. Sand was scattered on the floor, recalling the medieval practice of covering floors in rushes. Pots were shined, woodwork varnished, brickwork tarred."

The kitchen was the central room in the Dutch home. It was not tended to by servants and therefore stuck off in the basement or in a different building. Nor was it the communal kitchen of the Parisian apartment buildings. The Dutch kitchen was the showcase for polished copper pots and pans, beautiful dishware, and treasured linens.

But the most important thing about the Dutch home of the Golden Age was the loving attention bestowed upon the children of the family, as these charming and fascinating paintings show.


Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Linda! =) I found your 'blog through Tea at Trianon.

I really like your posts about the Dutch home and the medieval home. All this time, I've shared the Dutch attitude towards interiors and never knew it! The next time someone calls my easy-to-clean living space "boring," I'll tell that that it was inspired by a centuries-old tradition of Dutch minimalism!

Kittybriton said...

A very sincere thank you from me for posting your notes on Dutch domestic life in the 16th and 17th centuries. I have been working on a series of blog articles exploring the music of the period, and in particular, of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and I am very grateful to you for furnishing some vitally important, if seemingly trivial background information.

Suki said...

Just found this post searching for images of women making things with their hands in Dutch painting (I recently went to an exhibition in Cambridge, 'Vermeer's Women'). Thanks for a very informative and interesting post, plus a great book recommendation!

clairz said...

I have been working on the Dutch part of our family tree all day and wanted to have some pictures of Dutch domestic life in my head to dream about tonight. I found your blog and thank you for gathering and sharing these lovely paintings.

I have always been interested in learning about history through the daily lives of people, so I will be back to visit again.

I love that you have a quote by Elizabeth Goudge; she is one of my very favorite authors. I seldom come across anyone who is familiar with her books.

Hans said...

Glad to have found this site, and have an "opposing": opinion to offer. Visitors to Netherlands a century or more ago did often comment on the cleanliness of Dutch homes, but these homes were hardly sparsely furnished, with cleanliness in mind. Look at paintings of interiors from the 17th century. Some DO seem to be sparsely furnished, but was this the reality, or artistic license? Many Dutch interiors were actually WELL furnished, and wills and inventories from the "Golden Age" bear this out. The book "Dutch and Flemish Furniture" by Esther Singleton (publ. circa 1900) has much information on this.

Wills often describe multiple sets of chairs, various collections of small objects which would have been displayed in cabinets and on tables, porcelain and pottery, table carpets, etc. The Dutch home WAS clean and orderly but the Dutch also loved THINGS, and their homes reflected this.

I'm sure you've seen the film, "Girl with a Pearl Earring"? Set designers went to original sources for information, including an inventory taken after Vermeer's death, when depicting the Vermeer home. The main or best room boasted a curtained bed, fireplace, a set of chairs ranged against a wall, a folding screen, two tables with table carpets and other chairs, candlesticks, chairs beside the fireplace, paintings by Vermeer and others, small statues, knick knacks, shells, carvings, etc. All was nicely arranged, not "clutter", but a far cry from the sparse rooms that Vermeer sometimes depicted.