The Maid of Holland, or Hollandia as she was called, was employed in a variety of visual formats and types during the Golden Age. These varied allegorical renderings aided in the signification of diverse meanings circulating around the cult figure. She embodied religious, political, and – particularly important for the purposes of this article – gendered discourses. Her popular representation began to flourish at the time of the Revolt, as she came to symbolize the struggle for liberty against Spanish oppression.1 While much has been asserted about her religious origins and her patriotic symbolism, there have been no attempts at theorizing her meaning for the female spectatrix specifically. I would argue that this gender-crossing archetype had the ability to shape cultural opinions regarding the female sex that would be enabling for women in this society. Instead of constantly imaging women within the traditional structures of the male gaze, Dutch artists of the seventeenth century – inspired by this masculine archetype – began to visually explore the active, strong, and skillful characteristics of women. In addition, it will be asserted that the representation of such powerful women had a long-lasting legacy, influencing the formulation of gender status and roles for women from the beginnings of the Revolt in the later half of the sixteenth century and continuing throughout the seventeenth century and even beyond.2 This analysis of a rather unique visual tradition provides important insight into how such images helped to shape the societal conditions that promoted greater independence and agency for Dutch women generally.
In doing so this article will contest much previous scholarship that has focused on the patriarchal character of Dutch art and will provide ample evidence of an alternative view of women that was influenced by this powerful allegorical figure. From this perspective, women were imagined as heroic and consequential contributors within a dynamically changing society. The intent of this article is thus to develop a discourse on Dutch art that addresses women spectators and their emulation of the gender-crossing Maid of Holland allegory.
The Low Countries’s rebellion against Spain will be the starting point for this analysis, as this was a crucial moment for the overthrow of old socio-cultural traditions and the introduction of new ones.3 Importantly, this revolutionary moment of political reform also provided occasions for the restructuring of gender roles that assigned women greater significance in the public realm as traditional boundaries were blurred, altered, and even breached. Early on, women seized opportunities afforded by these shifting cultural terrains to rigorously participate in the Revolt and subsequently in the newly constituted socio-cultural framework. Consequently, each succeeding generation of women built upon these power-engendering traditions to structure their own significant identity. Indeed, historical studies regarding women of the Dutch Golden Age have increasingly provided evidence that they enjoyed a relatively powerful position. By first grounding this article in these investigations of social practice, I aim to preclude the all-too-frequent art historical tendency to neglect women’s actual lived experience. The societal features that reveal relatively significant levels of power for women in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic include: high education and literacy levels; public praise and recognition of capable, intelligent, and skilled women; and large numbers of female participants in business and other activities in the public domain.4 These conditions in combination with the tremendous cultural attention being paid to contemporary women in texts and images reveal a society in which women had enhanced opportunities to participate in the shaping of positive definitions of women and their contributions in both the public and private spheres.
In spite of the tremendous amount of research suggesting that early modern Dutch women possessed an unusually expansive ability to act within and shape their culture, little has been done to relate this power and independence to the art of the era. There are still questions to be asked about how the imaging of consequential women influenced public perceptions of the female gender. In response to these issues, discussions of imagining, subverting, emulating, empathizing, and assimilating via images will build upon social histories to provide a clearer understanding of female identity in the Republic. This realization that women were not absent in cultural practice and in influencing representations of their gender is crucial to the central thesis of this article. Influenced as they were by the Maid of Holland archetype, women significantly contributed to an empathetic attitude towards their gender with the images of female power that they inspired, created, and consumed.
Before attempting to argue for the emulating experiences of Dutch women as they viewed Maid of Holland imagery, it should be noted that during the last decade, evidence of women’s impact on early modern cultural development has increasingly been brought forward. This shift has encouraged a greater interest in analyzing female activity than in indicting patriarchy, and it has opened intriguing new possibilities for theorizing about women’s lives and about their contributions to culture. Furthermore, scholars have begun to more carefully investigate the limits of patriarchy and the options available to women by leaving behind discussions of oppression and instead concentrating on female agency.5 Such an approach has been characterized as “relational autonomy” by some feminist philosophers, and it argues for individual agency while at the same time acknowledging the import of social determinants. It has been suggested that a woman’s autonomous ability to “imagine herself otherwise” in a male-dominated society is only possible when the “cultural imaginary” contains symbols, images, and representations that allow her to deliberate, self-define, and self-fashion without unassailable restrictions.6 It will be demonstrated that the Maid of Holland was certainly one of those empowering symbols. Hence, the crucial redefining of women that resulted from the representation of various heroic, scholarly, artistic, and skilled maids of Holland, meant that the Dutch spectatrix had the freedom to at times subvert patriarchal prescriptions for sex-typed behaviors and to instead emulate the behaviors of the powerful female role models that were so well imprinted in the Dutch psyche.7
1 The Revolt and the Maid’s Metamorphosis
As previously mentioned, the Maid of Holland became a particularly popular symbol during the rebellion against Philip II. It was amidst this Revolt that the Maid of Holland became a fashionable allegory representing Dutch independence and virtue. Although the tradition of allegorical city maidens had a long history throughout Europe, Hollandia began to metamorphose into a nationalistic symbol of the new federation generally. In several early images, the Maid is depicted with coats of arms in a wattle-fenced garden enclosure reminiscent of traditional representations of the Virgin Mary. Just as the unbreachable garden, or hortus conclusus, had symbolized the preservation of Mary’s virginity, the Hollandse Tuin (Dutch Garden) came to signify the defense of Dutch territories and wealth against envious foreigners. This biblical allusion and the frequent inclusion of a martyr’s palm of triumph signify divine sanction of the rebellion. Hence, early in the rise of the Republic both sacred and political allusions were propounded via this allegorical figure, as in a stained-glass window gift of 1595–1597 from the city of Dordrecht to the Sint Janskerk in Gouda by Gerrit Gerritsz. Cuyp (1555/1575–1644) after an anonymous artist (Fig. 3.1).
It was fitting during the revolutionary era that this type of Maid of Holland should evolve as subject matter for a replacement window in the Sint Janskerk. In 1552, much of the church had been destroyed by fire and afterwards a restoration project was undertaken to rebuild the church and replace the destroyed windows. The windows in the apse and transept areas were completed according to Catholic dogma, but when Protestants took over the church in 1573, the iconographical program was changed. Several of the new nave windows, such as the Maid of Holland, took on a much more political character and were funded by the cities of the new Republic.8 Nevertheless, the use of stained glass with this monumental female figure still recalls traditional depictions of the Virgin in this medium. Moreover, in later scenes of the Dutch Maid a Bible was added, which further indicates how Protestant veneration of the Maid and what she symbolized replaced, in certain ways, the worship of Mary in the old religion. And like Mary, Hollandia also became an important female role model.
In this window, the Maid is shown in contemporary dress prominently displaying the arms of Dordrecht, as it was the first meeting place of the rebels in 1572. In Dordrecht such imagery was already familiar, as the Maid of that city appeared conspicuously in relief sculpture on the Groothoofdspoort. This figure appears to have been an important early influence on Dutch Maid allegories; she is mentioned by Juan Cristobal Calvete de Estrella (c. 1526–1593), a courtier to Philip II, in his memoirs of their journey to Dordrecht in 1549.9 In 1618 this earlier sculpture was restored by Gillis Huppe (1576–1650) (Fig. 3.2). The relief depicts a classically draped Maid in a fenced garden and wearing a hat, an ancient signifier of freedom dating from Roman times indicating the liberation of slaves. She carries a triumphant palm and the Dordrecht coat of arms, surrounded by the shields of other Dutch cities. In similar fashion, the Maid in the Sint Janskerk is also ringed in the arms of other rebel cities, and in this manner the Maid of Dordrecht also becomes the Maid of the Union. In addition, she is framed by the allegorical virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. Other symbols include the palm, the arch, and the wreath as signifiers of triumph for this female symbol of the Republic who is peacefully, yet powerfully, ensconced in her garden.10
By this date, the Maid in her Dutch Garden was already an important signifier for the prosperity of the Republic and the need to protect Dutch riches from envious outside forces. The embedding of this allegory in the social imaginary was significantly assisted by her early appearance on coinage. From the late sixteenth century onward she had appeared on coins enclosed in her garden and wearing the hat of liberty (Fig. 3.3). While her protected status is indicated by the barricaded enclosure in this ubiquitous imagery, her temerity and bellicosity are also emphasized by her brandished sword. Consonant with these traditions, the Sint Janskerk Maid bears the attribute of preserved virtue like the Virgin, but she also carries apotropaic signifiers for the Dutch hope of victory in the ongoing struggle with the Spanish enemy. And in her church setting, the Maid assimilates the protective power that Mary exercised in behalf of those who worshiped her. In this manner, Hollandia shifts from a (Dordrecht) civic allegory rooted in a sacred Christian archetype to an important signifier of the newly liberated Republic at this important moment of unification.
Perhaps of even greater relevance for future depictions of the Dutch Maid was another visual type in which she wears the helmet and armor of Pallas Minerva, the goddess of war and wisdom. At times she also grasps a lance capped by the Hat of Liberty. In this Roman mode she also complies with Cesare Ripa’s description of the allegorical figure, Liberty.11 Such a portrayal added classical authority to Christian sanction in the Dutch struggle for independence. This militaristic Maid of Holland is represented in a window gifted by the States of Holland (also situated in the nave of Gouda’s Sint Janskerk) by Adriaan Gerritsz. de Vrije (died in 1643) after a design by Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638) (Fig. 3.4). In this scene, a woman in classical warrior garb is identified by the inscription “Protection from Tyranny.”12 She carries a sword and a shield that bears the face of a lion, which would become the favorite companion to the Maid in future representations as an additional symbol of the Republic. Moreover, this bellicose Maid of Holland would be viewed as a protectress from despotism in visual culture for decades to come. She rides her chariot over the crowned figure of tyranny, who is surrounded by various instruments of subjection including the sword, halberd, whip, and shackles. Seated next to her on the chariot is a nude female allegory representing Freedom of Conscience. Hence, the warrior Maid protects this liberty from tyranny. Pulling the chariot are depictions of other virtues including Fortitude, Charity, Justice, Fidelity, and Unity. As with the enclosed Maid in the previously discussed window, this figure is framed by a triumphal arch and several Dutch coats of arms. Thus, in this guise, the Maid merges with the figure of Minerva and further adopts protective functions for the Republic through an assimilation of militaristic attributes inherited from her ancient predecessor.
During the last decades of the seventeenth century, it was this classically- garbed and helmeted Minervan Maid that was employed in Dutch coins (Fig. 3.5).13 Nevertheless, religious overtones are also present with the Bible propping up the figure’s left elbow. It was this hybrid religious and political Maid of Holland that was employed during the seventeenth century in order to create a powerful cultural symbol for the new Republic. And it has become clear that such symbols and memories of the Revolt helped construct much of Dutch identity.14 Furthermore, it is obvious that this cultural memory figure permeated all levels of society via a variety of media for a diversity of purposes. Through such representations, she was also linked to civic patriotism; cities such as Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Alkmaar all used the Maid as their symbol. In addition, she was used to promote nationalistic agendas on the part of the House of Orange, as will soon be discussed.
2 Contemporary Minervas
In certain instances, the hybridized Hollandia became increasingly bellicose in the early seventeenth century while the Dutch were still at war. In this constant militaristic reimaging during the Golden Age, the Maid also began to merge in form with equally popular depictions of actual, famed heroines in the Dutch struggle for independence. In particular, images of the Maid and of Kenau Simonsdr. Hasselaer (1526–1588) adopted similar traits as they both benefited from each other’s ubiquitous display.
By the mid-seventeenth century Kenau had become one of the most celebrated Dutch heroes in art and text, thus revealing her importance for the collective memory of the Revolt.15 Successive histories began to greatly exaggerate her military feats during the siege of Haarlem from 1572–1573. These accounts created a sensationalized and mythologized cultural memory, yet the tales were also based on a real woman of Haarlem.16 Kenau was most typically depicted in a confident hand-on-hip pose, as in a print by Matthias Quad von Kinkelbach (1557–1613) (Fig. 3.6).17 She holds a standing pike, while other male-gendered weapons such as sword, pistol, and powder horn hang from her waist. She also sports a medal of honor and sash across her chest that serve to enhance her heroic pose. Silhouetted against the sky and identified as “Capitain Kenou,” she becomes a triumphant, manly warrior. The inscriptions in German and Latin were obviously meant for an international audience; they reveal a great deal about the perceived character of the masculine Kenau and her growing international reputation. The text praises her legendary military feats by stating that she, armed as a man, drove the Spaniards from Haarlem in defense of the Fatherland. Furthermore, her army is compared to the Amazons and she is proclaimed a heroine whose fame is known far and wide.
This print evidences a desire to spread the legitimacy of the powerful, new Republic throughout Europe. It is one of those founding discourses that would form part of the cultural memory of the war for independence. It gave authority to Dutch claims that the war was fought in order to defend their rights and their Fatherland. But even more importantly for this discussion, the print provided a prototype of mingled male and female characteristics that would be greatly influential for future depictions and characterizations of the Maid of Holland. The warrior accessories, the manly pose with one arm akimbo, and the grasping of the pike were all elements that would influence Hollandian coinage and other media throughout the Golden Era. Significantly, both female archetypes – one an actual historical character and one an allegorical figure – celebrated women taking on masculine attributes and subverting traditional patriarchal notions of the female sex.
The militaristic character of the Maid of Holland was co-evolving with another type of repeated Kenau image, in which she is represented in half-length with all her weapons and the Haarlem church and landscape in the distance (Fig. 3.7). Although a likely sixteenth-century original has disappeared, there are several copies still in existence.18 Bok’s research regarding these copies suggests that they were probably commissioned and owned by family members who took pride in their famous and heroic ancestress.19 In the Rijksmuseum’s painting, Kenau is situated in front of a dramatic, triumphal arch that recalls the Hollandia imagery already discussed. Her bellicosity is underscored by the included halberd, pike, pistol, powder horn, and sword and by the inscription:
See here a Woman called Kenou, Brave as a Man:
Who in that time, Gallantly fought the Spanish tyrant.20
Such confrontational images demonstrate to what extent the legendary Kenau had overcome traditional female stereotypes. She is represented as a contemporary woman in her forties without idealization. Her unlovely and mannish features underscore the intent of the inscription that equates her with men. The exaggerated weaponry also emphasizes her masculine capabilities and poses a direct challenge to traditional displays of male power and authority. But perhaps most importantly for this discussion, the images also culturally liberate Kenau and the comparable Hollandia; they thwart the visual tradition of the lovely female painted as an object for a licentious male gaze.
Equally illuminating are the prints that compare Kenau to Judith, the biblical heroine, whose beheading of the tyrant Holofernes saved her people. These glorifying images, beginning in the late sixteenth century, are some of the first historiated portraits of the new Republic in which a contemporary figure is shown in the guise of a heroic figure from the past. This type of connection parallels the male tradition of William of Orange being identified with the Old Testament David or Moses and, more generally, the manner in which the Dutch associated themselves with God’s chosen people of ancient Israel.21 Hence, this comparison truly elevates Kenau to the status of an historical “good woman” of the type that was frequently listed in catalogs of the early modern age.22 Consequently, in one of several anonymous prints, Kenau is identified as the virtuous “Dutch Judith” who overcame the Spanish tyrant (Fig. 3.8).23 The helmeted head of a Spaniard sits as a trophy on the table next to an armed Kenau who also wears a medal around her neck. Therefore, just as Hollandia was celebrated for her Marian apotropaic powers, Kenau was venerated as a biblical protectress of the Dutch people.
Other heroines of the Revolt, Trijn van Leemput (c. 1530–1607) of Utrecht and Trijn Rembrands (c. 1557–1638) of Alkmaar, were similarly represented in manly warrior guise, and they too were included in local and national histories and catalogs.24 As a result of such bravery, several of these heroines were frequently included in histories of the Revolt and in contemporary Dutch catalogs of good women, such as the text Van de Wtnementheyt des Vrouwelicken Geslachts (On the Excellence of the Female Sex, 1639 and 1642) by Johan van Beverwijck (1594–1647).25 With such cultural adulation, it should not be surprising that contemporary historians record how several Dutch women were discovered disguising themselves as men in order to go to battle during the Golden Age.26
These early Dutch heroines were distinctive in many ways. First, several cities of the newly forming Republic took pride in and proclaimed in exaggerated fashion the brave deeds of one or more of their female citizenry in paintings, prints, and city histories.27 So, rather than producing a singularly extraordinary heroine, the Revolt generated a tradition that allowed for the much more common assimilation of heroic capabilities by women. Another unusual feature of the Dutch heroine tradition is the manner in which these women achieved their legendary status. Unlike the more familiar self-sacrificing heroines of the past, most of these women gained fame through courageous struggle in battle. Indeed, they purportedly competed with, and at times surpassed, their male compatriots in terms of strength and bravery. Thus, the future ability of women to envision themselves in traditionally male roles was greatly enhanced. Finally, a further distinctive feature of these heroines was their common status; they were not royalty, but were instead ordinary burgher women. Assuredly, this aspect of the Dutch heroine also made her a more accessible role model for women at large.28
Some Dutch authors like Jacob van de Vivere and Simon de Vries asserted that this celebration of courageous heroines inspired later generations of women to go to war, become aggressive, rule their husbands, and take on male roles.29 Such anecdotes relate directly to the research of Dekker and Van de Pol, whose investigations yielded a significant number of cases in which women dressed as males and enlisted as sailors and soldiers during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in the Netherlands.30 Furthermore, they presume that the number of instances discovered only represents a small portion of actual cases in which women were donning the trousers. While the motivations of these women were mixed, many of them claimed patriotic justifications and expressed a desire for glory. Surely, the conflicting opinions regarding female soldiers, particularly those extolling the patriotic foremothers of the Revolt, must have inspired several women to take on these male roles, as is described in various narratives. In addition, the ubiquitous Hollandia also provided a constant visual model of female strength and heroism. Consequently, the Dutch were influenced within this social framework to have esteemed perceptions of women’s bravery and of their capabilities generally. Most importantly, there developed a shared cultural memory of women who were celebrated because they had transgressed traditional gender boundaries and were found to be the equal of men.
It seems likely that the visual coupling of the revolutionary heroine and the allegorical Maid was a natural consequence of the process by which unifying patriotic signifiers were established in the Republic. Clearly, the two female archetypes bolstered one another’s popularity in the Dutch imagination. In a manner comparable to the heroine depictions, images of the Maid were quickly claimed by the visual culture of the new federation, as is demonstrated by her very public presentation in numerous media during the seventeenth century. So, it is essential to consider what this allegorical figure might have signified for women. In this regard, I agree with historian Marina Warner that, “… a symbolized female presence both gives and takes value and meaning in relation to actual women, and contains the potential for affirmation not only of women themselves but of the general good they might represent and in which as half of humanity they are deeply implicated.”31 Thus, I would suggest that contemporary women not only emulated this powerful role model, as they would the heroines, they also referenced her as a tool for fashioning and constructing female identity generally. And that identity consisted of “manly” characteristics such as bravery and fortitude. In Claes Jansz. Visscher’s Batavian Mirror of 1610, for example, the Dutch Maid is a powerful warrior but in contemporary dress like the heroines (Fig. 3.9). She grasps her lance in one hand and the seven arrows signifying the United Provinces in the other. She has become a protectress of the shields of the seven provinces and of religion and citizens’ rights all situated around the base of her throne. The Maid’s triumph is assured via her armed and dominating presence. In such an image, the militaristic conflation of the actual heroine archetype and the allegorical heroine archetype again becomes evident.
In a history of the Revolt by Famianus Strada (1572–1649), entitled De thien eerste boecken der Nederlandsche oorlogen (The First Ten Books of the Netherlandish Wars, first published in 1632 but written c. 1602) the titleplate displays an even more bellicose Maid of Holland (Fig. 3.10). Her clothing has taken on the hybrid form of Minerva’s garb and the military attire of a Roman general. In addition to being surrounded by various coats of arms, she is deluged by weaponry in a manner comparable to Kenau images. Her militant character is in keeping with the content of the book, which records in great detail the events of the war with Spain including an account of Kenau. Significantly, in this text Kenau is described as the leader of a troop of women who pounced on the enemy with such zeal that they were thoroughly astonished.32 Perhaps this model of female bravery was the partial inspiration for the intrepid Maid on the titleplate.
It is likely that this book illustration influenced the design for a stained-glass window in the church at Biervliet from 1660 (Fig. 3.11). As in the previous engraving, a Minerva-like helmeted female is shown seated and grasping a spear with her right hand. Her left arm is akimbo and resting on a shield. The power of the Maid is further emphasized in this design by the familiar and ferocious Medusa head which decorates her shield as an allusion to Minerva’s role in the Perseus myth. The Maid’s bellicosity is once again accentuated by the surrounding profusion of arms, which includes halberds and spears. This abundant weaponry and the triumphal arch that accompany the armed female figure are significant continuations of Dutch heroine and Hollandia signifiers. Furthermore, like these precedents, this Maid was clearly meant to engender unifying patriotic sentiment – evidenced by the flanking window bearing the arms of William III (1650–1702). In 1660, William’s mother Mary (1631–1660) and his grandmother Amalia van Solms (1602–1675) were in the process of trying to persuade several of the provinces to re-adopt the Prince of Orange as their stadtholder during the First Stadtholderless Period (1650–1672). It was hoped that the patriotic fervor invoked by the warrior Maid would aid this campaign.33
As a result of this constant reimaging, by the mid-seventeenth century the warrior Maid of Holland had become a popular figure in prints and book illustrations like Strada’s titleplate. For example, in her Minerva garb with her warrior lion, she dominates another titleplate for a history by Pieter C. Hooft (1581–1647) Neederlandsche histoorien (Dutch history, 1642, Fig. 3.12).34 Once again, tales of the bellicose Kenau may have inspired the depiction, as Hooft claims within the text that the legion of housewives under Kenau’s command was over three hundred. He praises Kenau as a brave “mannin” (female man), and describes her as being armed with spear, gun, and rapier while leading women against the enemy. By mid-century such exaggerated recountings of Kenau’s deeds began to fashion her into a kind of revolutionary symbol. Hence, both types of militant female figures, as found in this text, were employed to glorify and reassure the Republic.
3 Assimilating Allegory
Through this continued merging of heroic female topoi, the Dutch significantly ritualized the depiction of powerful women. These “memory figures”35 contributed to the stabilization of the new Republic, and they helped convey the society’s new self-image. Therefore, their myths had important functional properties in the establishment of social cohesion. And as Jan Assman has theorized, such myths are critical in the establishment of collective identity: “Myth is a story one tells oneself in order to orient oneself in the world; a truth of a higher order, which is not simply true but in addition makes normative claims and possesses a formative power.”36 In this way, the images of heroic maids imbued an ideology that venerated women who had adopted traditionally male traits in the service of the Fatherland. In addition, they influenced positive cultural attitudes towards women who crossed “natural” gender boundaries. Thus, in addition to helping inculcate patriotic pride in, and support for, the new federation, these images also established distinctive and new conventions of behavior for future Dutch women. Consequently, they functioned as more than collective or cultural memories, they also symbolized female possibilities and aspirations in this new social construction.
In order to more fully understand the range of discursive possibilities around the invention of this newly developing semiotic field of heroic female prints, it is critical to theorize about the power and meaning of the medium in seventeenth-century Dutch culture. Specifically, it is important to understand how this new reproductive medium functioned in what was perhaps the first modern consumer culture. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch were establishing a standard of commodification and spectacle that became the envy of all Europe. It has been suggested, for example, that the many representations of luxury goods in the visual culture of the time created and fulfilled a longing and desire to own these objects.37 In comparable fashion, owning representations of the manly female celebrities and allegories of the era via the accessible print could satisfy another type of personal wish fulfillment and psychological projection of oneself that similarly subverted sex-typed behaviors.38 Due to the easy access of these images, the social construction of women would obviously have entailed a familiarization with these allegorical and historical heroines. Furthermore, it would have inspired emulation in women’s attempts to correspondingly acquire celebrated public status.
That women did imagine themselves in these roles will become evident in their use of these images as models and templates to fashion themselves throughout the century. A few scholars, for example, have discussed the interest of elite women of the Republic in having themselves portrayed as ancient exempla, just as the heroines of the Revolt were frequently associated with the biblical Judith and the ancient Amazons. Research suggests that such historiated portraits would have similarly endowed the sitter with the virtues of these renowned predecessors. The guises of both biblical and mythological women were employed to give women, especially women at the court of the Stadholder in The Hague, a forceful public presence.39 Such power-engendering historiated portraiture was particularly important to Amalia van Solms, wife of Frederick Henry (1584–1647) Prince of Orange. Amalia significantly influenced both the culture and politics of court life at The Hague.40 Therefore, it is not surprising that she, and other women at court, would choose to have themselves portrayed as powerful mythological heroines.41 For example, the goddess Diana and her associations with attributes of the hunt and warfare are emphasized in Gerard van Honthorst’s (1592–1656) Amalia as Diana at the Hunt with her Sister the Countess van Brederode of 1627 (Fig. 3.13).42 The bellicose nature of this horde of warring Amazons is reminiscent of both descriptions and depictions of Dutch heroines. Another gender-breaching role model from antiquity was the familiar Minerva. In Honthorst’s portrait of Elisabeth van Solms (sister to Amalia) as Minerva in armor, the manner in which the spear-bearing and cross-dressing female figure boldly confronts the viewer’s gaze is reminiscent of both revolutionary heroines and Maids of Holland (1632, Fig. 3.14).43 This recollection of celebrated patriotic signifiers would have greatly benefitted the desires of both Amalia and Elisabeth to expand their influence and power at the Dutch court.
For other women, modeling attributes of the heroic Dutch maids of Holland occurred in less combative and less political ways. An important example of this type of identity construction is found in Ferdinand Bol’s (1616–1680) 1663 Margarita Trip as Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, Teaching her Younger Sister Anna Maria Trip (Fig. 3.15).44 Once again, there is a Hollandian conflation of classical and religious traditions, as depictions of Mary learning at the knee of St. Anne are vividly recalled. Furthermore, the huge volume towed in by the struggling putti is likely to be the Bible so often associated with the Maid of Holland.45 Beyond the religious overtones, however, there is a significant melding of the gender-breaching characteristics of Minerva as warrior and of Minerva as wise scholar in order to bestow these manly and heroic attributes on the young Margarita.
This type of assimilation by contemporary women will perhaps be even better understood by first examining an interesting titleplate for the text Lof der schilder-konst (Praise of the Art of Painting, 1642) by the Leiden artist and theorist Philips Angel (Fig. 3.16).46 Chapman suggests that the Maid of Holland’s wattle fence was here combined with armored Pallas Minerva as goddess of the arts and with the allegorical figure Pictura, or painting, via her palette and brushes.47 She asserts that this hybrid maiden was thus a glorification of the modern Dutch painting tradition as equaling the renowned art of antiquity. It is important to remember, however, that the Dutch had already adopted Minerva as a symbol for the Republic. While the allegory certainly borrowed the goddess from antiquity, by 1642 she was already a patriotic symbol of the United Provinces and of Leiden in particular.48 Hence, the title plate is a significant celebration of Dutch art in and of itself. And these two patriotic references to the Maid of Holland and Dutch Pictura would become important signifiers for women. Indeed, famed women artists came to be viewed as triumphant heroines and Hollandias.
Furthermore, female artists and scholars of the Golden Age who attained civic and national renown did so in part via numerous adulatory texts and images that employed these same associations. Characterized as heroines and Minervas by their contemporaries, these women, like their heroic predecessors, triumphed in the male, public sphere and acquired such fame that later generations of women followed in their footsteps. Their celebrity is, I argue, a compelling indicator of the lasting influence of the heroic Dutch Maid tradition.
For example, the scholar and artist Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–1678) was inarguably the most internationally famous woman of the Republic.49 She received a great deal of acclaim for both her scholarly and artistic pursuits. Importantly, she devoted much of her artistic activity to the the production of self-portraiture. It is significant that some of these portrayals directly recall the depictions of heroic women, and indeed, she was considered a heroine by many of her contemporaries. For example, in Hubertus Beets’s pro-female text, Oratio in laudem mulieris, 1650, he opens with an image of the heroic Judith beheading Holofernes and closes with a lengthy ode to the “Batavian miracle”, Van Schurman – a pairing that recalls the famous Kenau.50 And in more explicit connection with her allegorical and actual predecessors, others called her the “Utrecht Minerva” and labeled her a “heroine” and a “jewel of the Fatherland.”51 Such glorifying publicity helped create and spread the fame of this woman who truly became an international celebrity as elites from around Europe anxiously initiated correspondence with her. Due to her writings and those of her circle, a kind of protofeminist sisterhood developed with women supporting one another via their laudatory art and poetry. Women’s new access to these voluntary circles of intellectuals greatly enhanced their abilities to have a social voice.52 Their art and writings all contributed to a sense of women as knowledgeable and skilled in manly ways. As a result, these women were able to positively and collectively give shape to female identity in Dutch society, as they victoriously crossed traditional gender boundaries.53
Van Schurman’s further links with the heroic Dutch maids of the past are particularly evident in one of her texts, Opuscula Hebraea Graeca Latina et Gallica, prosaica et metrica, (Little works in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and French) which was first published in 1648 and reprinted in 1650, 1652, and 1672. The text opens with an iconic image of Van Schurman after an earlier self-portrait, which includes an inscription indicating that the full marvel of this woman will only be partially revealed in the text. Clearly, she understood that in order to compete in a man’s world, she had to employ the male tactic of publicly representing herself and pronouncing her capabilities. Therefore, a portion of this text is completely devoted to acquaintances’s praise of her abilities.54 In these verses, frequent comparisons are made with the goddess Minerva, and she is also labeled a heroine and a virago, or a woman who does violent battle. One verse even familiarly compares her to the ancient Amazons. Such comparisons immediately recall the epithets applied to Dutch heroic female archetypes. Evidence that Van Schurman, herself, saw her life-long task of elevating the status of women as a heroic battle is found in her letter to the protofeminist Marie le Jars de Gournay (1565–1645) in Opuscula.
All the familiar language surrounding heroic female icons is present in this poem. She not only calls De Gournay a heroine, but she speaks of doing battle with men by being armed as Pallas Minerva. Furthermore, she follows De Gournay’s example, which will lead all women to victory and a crowning with triumphant laurels.
In addition to praising Van Schurman, these letters also celebrated the city of Utrecht, the home that she had made so famous. Undoubtedly, much of this rhetoric was inspired by the descriptions of past heroines who similarly bestowed fame on their cities. Furthermore, like the heroines, she was an important figure in the cultural memory of the Republic generally. In this manner, she became a proud patriotic symbol of the United Provinces. Her renowned scholarly contributions to the Republic were considered equal to the battling women of the Revolt and the warrior Maids of Holland. At the same time, her portraits and texts helped further structure definitions of “woman” and positive attitudes toward female transgression of traditional gender roles from early on in the Republic.
In fact, her image and praise of her abilities were consistently circulated in a variety of contexts, which ensured a cultural tradition that valued and paid homage to this legendary figure. This constructed visual and textual history created a cultural memory of this famed Dutch woman that would remain influential throughout the seventeenth century regarding perceptions of the ways in which a woman could take on traditionally male traits and abilities, especially intellectual genius and artistic skills. Importantly, the aggrandizing nature of the heroic female visual tradition was adopted in order to bestow similar status on Van Schurman. Traces of heroic female imagery of the past are particularly evident in a bold self-portrait designed by Van Schurman and included in a Jacob Cats dedication to her at the outset of his text ‘S Werelts Begin, Midden, Eynde, Besloten in den Trou-Ringh, Met den Proef-Steen van den Selven (The World’s Beginning, Middle and End, Comprised in the Wedding Ring, With the Touch Stone of the Same, Fig. 3.17). Accompanying the image is an inscription proclaiming her fame and glory and also a page-long description of all her talents in learning, art, and music.56 In the image, the celebratory view of the Utrecht church under a triumphal arch is reminiscent of both Kenau and Hollandia imagery in its reminder of the religious, civic, and national pride attached to female heroines. Also comparable are the manly prostheses of fame and power: in heroine images, these were weapons and Spanish heads, and in Van Schurman’s portrait these are scholarly manuscripts and writing implements. Importantly, the heroine images had already crossed gender boundaries by equating female bravery with that of men in the inscriptions and by picturing women armed like men in heroic hand-on-hip poses. Thus, when Van Schurman adopts these aspects and manipulates them to proclaim her celebrated status, there were already pictorial precedents that had bestowed public fame on female subjects. Significantly, Van Schurman’s glorified self-portrait reappeared in multiple editions of Cats’s ’S Werelts Begin (first published in 1637) and in his collected works, thus disseminating her powerful and influential image throughout the Republic.
A profound example of the consequences of Van Schurman’s fame for other women is found in the admiring verses of Charlotte de Huybert (c. 1622–after 1644). De Huybert, daughter of a Leiden lawyer, was praised as a skilled poet by Van Beverwijck, and he includes one of her poems in his text. The inclusion of this poem is significant because it provides a female perspective on Van Schurman and on women taking up male roles. Moreover, it fashions a place for De Huybert herself as a woman trying to make her own public reputation. Her praise of Van Schurman forcefully indicates how extremely important this celebrity had become as a role model for Dutch women:
To you, Miss, we are grateful, for your talented spirit was the motive for this praiseworthy work [speaking of Van Beverwijck’s text].
Your virtue remains women’s virtue, your wisdom women’s wisdom: so that through your name all women are praised, your glory is glory to us …57
Importantly, this ode further enhanced the pro-female discourse that already celebrated both military and cultural heroines. Hence, the public discussion initiated by and around these women formed part of the social learning to which young women in the Republic were exposed. In this manner, the accomplishments of Van Schurman became part of the cultural imaginary and provided the necessary symbols for other women to self-determine and self-define in enabling ways. And just as Van Schurman employed her agency to successfully manipulate the schema of sex-typed behaviors and reshape notions of female identity, later generations of women were also agents who could give further voice to the less frequently verbalized discourses of female power.
Confirmation that Van Schurman was viewed as a role model for other Dutch women can be found in other numerous verses written by women in praise of her accomplishments.58 These women include the poetesses Sybille van Griethuisen (1621–1699), Maria Margaretha van Akerlaacken (1605–c. 1670), and Johanna Hobius (c. 1614–c. 1643) who wrote a rhyming text lauding women generally and entitled Lof der vrouwen (Praise of women, 1643). This catalog of “good women” begins with biblical and ancient examples and concludes with her own era and effusive praise for Van Schurman. She extols this famed adornment of women whose radiance shines on all women and who stands as the most honored female in the midst of men. She details her knowledge and wisdom, her ability with languages and her writing, her glass engraving and painting (including a self-portrait), and her musical abilities. After this eulogy she puts out a call to all women who want to praise Van Schurman and crown her with laurels to think on this poem and how it will influence them.59
Hobius, herself, sets an example for other women by following in Van Schurman’s footsteps with her own poetic writings. This emulation was not lost on her contemporaries as is witnessed in a final inclusion to the text, which is a poem by Antonis de Huybert. He eulogizes Hobius and says that she has become the pride of her Fatherland. Moreover, he claims that Van Schurman’s glory will fade in comparison with Hobius’s fame.60 The title plate to this small text is also an important reminder of the consistent signifiers associated with famed women of the Republic (Fig. 3.18). It depicts Minerva as goddess of wisdom and the arts, but also as the Maid of Holland, crowning a contemporary maid of Holland with a laurel wreath as she writes in a book. Above, a figure trumpets the glory of women who are celebrated because of their various accomplishments in learning, the arts, and music symbolized by the books, the embroidery frame, and the musical instruments.
Perhaps no praise of a woman’s artistic abilities surpasses that lavished upon the turn of the century figure Joanna Koerten (1650–1715), whose talents were also compared to those of Van Schurman.61 This now little known paper-cutting artist was at one time an internationally renowned figure, and the artist biographer Arnold Houbraken’s praise of her is particularly striking.62 In addition, several of Koerten’s contemporaries, both male and female, also wrote lauding verses and signed an autograph book, or Stamboek, in honor of this famous artist. This included national and international celebrities like Peter the Great, who visited her workshop. This collection of admiring drawings and poems was kept even after her death by her husband and was published twice in the eighteenth century.63 This publication reminds us of Van Schurman’s self-fashioning in Opuscula. Nevertheless, such attention to a female artist in these eulogizing collections was unprecedented. Moreover, there were a number of women who contributed to the text; this included a still-life drawing by Van Schurman.
Houbraken’s son Jacob (1698–1780) was clearly linking Koerten’s fame back to her famous female predecessor in his album drawing in which Van Schurman’s portrait is paired with Koerten’s and the two are accompanied by artistic and scholarly tools, including books and papers, palette and brushes, as well as a pair of scissors (Fig. 3.19). A sculpted figure of Minerva looks up in admiration toward these tremendously famous women. Minerva’s inclusion reminds the viewer that both women were inheritors of the goddess’s name as a meritorious appellation – Koerten was known as the Scissors-Minerva.64 Moreover, Minerva’s lance-wielding, militaristic appearance must also have conjured up cultural memories of the revolutionary heroines and the Maid of Holland in their subversion of manly roles. This cultural memory of heroic females becomes obvious in album verses which claim that Koerten’s struggle eclipsed that of the Amazons and so deserved great fame.65 Indeed, the poetess Gesine Brit often calls her the “Kunstheldin” (art heroine) of the Amstel River in her ode to Koerten from the Stamboek that was republished in Houbraken’s biography.66 Importantly, she claims that Koerten’s heroism is particularly notable due to the fact that nature is against women in the arena of art. Thus, once again, it is a woman’s ability to transgress gender boundaries and exemplify male abilities that makes her a heroine.
Many poems in the Stamboek elaborate on the fame that Koerten brought to the city and one author even calls her studio in Amsterdam, the eighth wonder of the world.67 In this vein, another celebratory drawing, by Jan van Vianen, depicts the militaristic figure of the Dutch/Amsterdam Maid with her sword-bearing lion in front of the Stadhuis, or city hall (Fig. 3.20). This triumphant figure is accompanied by a god symbolizing Amsterdam’s Ij River and by two putti carrying scissors and a portrait of Koerten.68 In this manner, the citizens of Amsterdam are celebrating their own unique heroic maid.
In another drawing from the stamboek, there is significant evidence as to how dramatically this cultural heroine had been able to alter male attitudes in regards to representing the fame and glory of accomplished women. In a drawing with inscription by Philip Tideman (1657–1705), he praises Koerten by portraying her at her toilette gazing into a mirror (Fig. 3.21). She is accompanied by two eulogizing, allegorical figures. One wears a laurel crown and carries a triumphal palm. The other is the Minervan Maid of Holland who is ready to bestow glory on this Amsterdam artist with her ready scissors. The accompanying verses indicate how Koerten had helped to construct a positive female identity in Dutch culture.
Joanna Koerten, your jewels are ways of Virtue and Art that accompany and adorn you. Joanna does not wear ostentatious robes. She wears neither precious treasure nor gold; but she displays virtue and artistic adornment that never age.69
An astonishing subversion of misogynist biases regarding women’s character is accomplished in this drawing. The accompanying verses indicate how Koerten’s fame had constructed a new identity for women; it was an identity that rejected traditional sex-typed characteristics such as female vanity and beauty and instead adopted manly skill. Furthermore, this was accomplished in part by referencing the familiar Minerva/Hollandia allegory.
Such female triumph is also reflected in Koerten’s most beloved work, a cutting of the Roman Goddess of Liberty, 1697, that she kept throughout her life and which she presumably chose to decorate the original title plate to the Stamboek (Fig. 3.22). The design for this image was likely inspired by another titleplate depicting the Maid of Holland. In 1660, Philipp von Zesen published his history of Amsterdam, Leo Belgicus, which included an illustration of male portrait heads (including both Roman and Netherlandish rulers) surrounding the enthroned Hollandia (Fig. 3.23).70 Similarly, Koerten’s heroic female figure surrounded by portraits of ancient emperors and the Roman she-wolf also celebrates the republican values of the Fatherland, but she further displays Koerten’s Amazonian efforts in the amazingly detailed technique. This work received significant praise by several contributors to the Stamboek, and evidence that it was intended as a showpiece for visitors to her studio is indicated by the self-praising inscription cut at the bottom of the image. Obviously, the artist wanted to be associated with an ancient allegory of female power just like the heroines and Minervas before her.
During the latter part of the seventeenth century, several women artists were achieving this type of heroic status. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), for example, was another important scholar-artist who achieved great renown. Although she was not born in the Dutch Republic, she came to the Netherlands later in life after leaving her husband.71 In a setting where famous women had previously been supported in artistic pursuits, she was able to develop a significant reputation for herself as a painter of plants and insects. She was so successful in selling her works that she was able to raise the funds necessary to travel to Surinam. After her return to the Netherlands, she once again established a successful art trade and published her book of Surinam studies in Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1705.
Merian was also discussed in Houbraken’s biography of artists. He included a cropped version of a portrait print of Merian made by his son, Jacob (1698–1780) after a drawing by Georg Gsell. The original print displays another powerful assertion of female accomplishment (Fig. 3.24).72 Like so many male artists’s portraits of the era, Merian is depicted in her studio surrounded by her drawings. The insects and plants from which she drew inspiration are also included. The nearby writing implements, books, and globe, as well as the cloth of honor overhead, are all familiar metaphors of accomplishment found in the portraits of Van Schurman. This artistic connection between the two women may have been so explicit due to the fact that they were also united by their faith. Earlier, both women had dwelt in the same religious community founded by the Protestant reformer Jean de Labadie. On the wall behind Merian hangs a shield with symbols from the Merian coat of arms: a stork with a serpent in its mouth. In front of this shield, a miniature female figurine trumpets Merian’s fame next to another small, helmeted Minervan Maid of Holland figure that holds a pike and Hat of Liberty. In this manner, there is continuous meaning accruing to the heroine figure who comes to generally represent the triumph and freedom of the Revolt and also the glory of the Republic. Yet more specifically, she also signifies the celebrated women of the Fatherland who are revered as patriotic heroines and scholarly and artistic geniuses and who deserve the enduring association with Minerva.73 In his text, Houbraken reprints the verse that accompanied the original portrait, in which is found a celebration of her art and a declaration that her name will live on. Thus, this portrait is one further example of the consistent Dutch desire to champion famous female citizenry, and the symbols in Merian’s portrait now claim this new celebrity as one more “good woman” of the Republic. Moreover, as this portrait was reproduced in print form, it ensured the broad establishment of her fame in a manner comparable to that employed for her heroine foremothers.
Similar sorts of eulogizing are found in a presumed portrait of the internationally renowned paintress Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) dated to about 1680 and attributed to Michiel van Musscher (Fig. 3.25).74 Ruysch, an acclaimed still-life artist of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, is depicted in an exalted pose as she points with her brush to her artistic skill via her painted canvas with still life. On the table are sculptures and books as references to her artistic training and achievement. Allegorical figures trumpeting her fame and crowning her with a laurel wreath are reminiscent of other portraits of cultural heroines, as is the cloth of honor. These were fitting adornments and celebrations for the first female artist to be admitted to The Hague painters’s guild and who also enjoyed international patronage. This acclaimed artist familiarly wears a medal across her chest – a traditional indicator of royal patronage and favor.75 Nevertheless, this proudly displayed medal of honor also recalls Kenau imagery, as does the militaristic lance-bearing figure of the Minervan Maid of Holland in the background. Like Van Schurman and Koerten, Ruysch also received this goddess’s epithet; she was known as the “Amsterdam Minerva”.76 Such flamboyant commemoration of a female artist again witnesses how far some women had come in their ability to inspire public fame for themselves and their art.
In a process comparable to the gathering and publishing of eulogizing verses in honor of Van Schurman and Koerten, poems in honor of Ruysch appeared in a volume of 1750, Dichtlovers voor de uitmuntende schilderessen Mejufvrouwe Rachel Ruisch (Poems for the excellent painter Mistress Rachel Ruysch). It included many verses, by men and women, expressing awe over Ruysch’s imitative skills in the genre of still-life painting, particularly considering that she was a woman. The text also proclaims that her fame and her art will endure eternally. In Johan van Gool’s biographical De Nieuwe Schouburg der Nederlantsche Kunstshcilders en Schilderessen (The New Theatre of Netherlandish Painters and Paintresses, 1750) he informs us that not only was Ruysch known as an “Art Goddess,” she was also called an “Art Heroine.” In addition, he includes verses that further identify her as the “Amsterdam Pallas” and the “Minerva of the IJ.”77 All of these epithets indicate how profoundly the cultural memory of the seventeenth century had continually renewed the associations among all of the celebrated women of the Republic. They were viewed as heroines and Maids of Holland who had brought fame to the Fatherland and their cities via their manly deeds. They were celebrated in art and verse, and civic pride did much to enhance their legendary status.
4 Domesticity and the Dutch Maid
In addition to this discussion of wealthy and famous “Maids of Holland,” it is important to include an analysis of assimilating possibilities for Dutch women as a whole. Evidence of a consistent cultural connection between the heroic warrior Maid and women generally can be found in her representation on domestic products. For example, by mid-seventeenth century she frequently decorated the surfaces of protective fire backs (Fig. 3.26). These objects of material culture would have been daily reminders to those women cooking at the hearth of the Dutch struggle for independence and of women’s heroism in establishing this new federation. In these reliefs, a bellicose Maid in her Dutch Garden boldly grasps a lance with the Hat of Liberty at its tip. The words Pro Patria, or for the Fatherland, are inscribed overhead. She wears the hat of a soldier, and her fierce companionate lion has also become militarized as it brandishes a sword and clenches the seven arrows. Therefore, the continued interest in, and elaboration on, both types of heroic female themes helped to establish a unifying and epic Dutch tradition, while also engendering patriotic fervor in the founding of the new Republic – all through the figure of a woman.
Previously in the discussion of the Gouda windows, the two types of Hollandia were introduced: the contemporary maiden and the manly Minerva. In the former characterization, she was employed in the early decades of the seventeenth century as a patriotic allegory of the divinely blessed and economically powerful new Republic. Perhaps no print on this subject has been given more attention than the titleplate of a pamphlet from 1615 by Willem Pietersz. Buytewech (1591/1592–1624). The image bears the inscription, Merckt de Wysheit vermaert vant Hollantsche huyshouwen en siet des luypaerts aert die niet is te vertrouwen (Note the wisdom of renowned Dutch housekeeping and see the leopard’s nature that is not to be trusted, Fig. 3.27). The pamphlet further informs us that this is an allegory on the deceitfulness of Spain and the freedom and prosperity of the Seven Provinces. First and foremost, this print has been studied as an important political signifier of the imperative to remind the Dutch citizenry about the need for unity and to warn them to be vigilant against the Spanish enemy in spite of the Twelve Years Truce.78 Hollandia is once again situated in her prosperous garden where she sits under the triumphant arch of Batavian heerschappij (dominion). She is surrounded by the arms of the provinces and of the Prince of Orange, while being protected by the Dutch Lion. Might, Reason, and the friends of the Fatherland further aid her victory. Her two-faced Spanish enemy enviously spies on Hollandia and lurks with an army outside the gate.
I would assert that with such images as these, in addition to the political purposes, there are also possibilities for the female spectator to equate the Maid generally with the power of Dutch women. The juxtaposition of Hollandia with signifiers such as heerschappij (dominion) and huyshouwen (householding) significantly recalls the pronouncements of Van Beverwijck on the import of domestic roles. He firmly asserts the importance of family and home, proclaims that the family is the fountain and origin of a republic, and states that one must augment and preserve the family as one would govern and protect a city or state. He also declares that the housewife’s reliable actions lay the foundation for a well-ordered society, considers the housewife’s power great, and compares her domain to a kingdom. He immediately follows this discussion with a denial that his praise of the housewife is a means to restrict women to the domestic realm. He relates that many women are able to engage in trade and business, while other women practice arts and learning. Finally, he claims that if more women were allowed such opportunities, they would be found capable of all things. Moreover, and very importantly, he claims that the assignation of gender roles is not due to nature, but is instead a matter of habit.79
In this manner, the Maid became a model for women generally, whose rule over their own realms was so critical to the success of the Republic. This heerschappij of housewives is frequently represented in domestic genre scenes. Images of the home rarely contain fathers, and when they are present, they are usually relegated to an insignificant position, often in the background, of the composition. Women dominate these scenes and they are frequently shown instructing children, servants, and vendors in their duties. A significant example of this type of authoritarian imagery is depicted in a painting of 1663 by Quirijn van Brekelenkam (Fig. 3.28). Here the mother is enthroned in the center of the composition with children and a maidservant emulating her example and attending to her commands. The man of the household is only minimally referenced in the portrait on the back wall. It has been suggested that there is a possibility that this is a genrefied family portrait, in which case the husband’s authority has been significantly reduced in relation to the powerful position of his wife.80 Thus, a kind of matriarchal ideal was constructed in which women reigned supreme in the domestic sphere without the interference of men.
In regards to the powerful role of the domestic matriarch, it is essential to discuss a final artistic genre that demonstrates the import of imaging heroic maids for female viewers generally. These images were created by women and girls for the home in the form of decorative samplers. Not surprisingly, the Maid of Holland became one of the most favored motifs in Dutch needlepoint during the second half of the Golden Age. In these depictions, this powerful and intrepid woman is almost always posed in the familiar hand-on-hip heroine stance within her fenced garden, as in a sampler dated 1665 by Maria Block (Fig. 3.29). Also in the manner of previous imagery, Hollandia wields a spear with her other hand that displays the hat of liberty. In relation to this very popular motif, it is important to recall the theoretical construct of the “subversive stitch” as Parker labeled it several years ago.81 She suggests that meaning in needlework is culturally specific and must be examined within these contexts in order to ascertain how women both accepted and resisted patriarchal prescriptions for feminine behavior in relation to traditional women’s work. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that samplers like this one were also a demonstration of the artist’s literary and visual knowledge.82 I would suggest that in displaying one’s learning and in recalling famous and heroic Maids of Holland, both allegorical and real, such motifs were used as a subversive statement regarding female ability and influence in a medium to which women generally had access and with which they could communicate across domestic boundaries. Reciprocally, the constant visibility of these female-created motifs must have inspired the young woman viewer in her desire to similarly develop her own consequential identity. Like the many cultural heroines discussed, she, too, would have been responsive to this assimilating impulse as she imagined herself in a role of import. Hence, through the art of needlepoint, every woman who contributed to the glory of the Republic could visualize herself as a heroic Maid of Holland. And the avid re-representing of the glorious and inspirational Maid by females throughout the Republic is witness to both the adulatory and emulative impulses of the Dutch spectatrix.
In light of these heroic associations with Dutch female culture generally, a credible analysis of the visual arts produced in the Golden Age cannot ignore the public visibility these works provided for women. Clearly, such reimaging of strong females figured large in the discourse over the nature and significance of women. These images emphasized the importance of women in all their roles for the well-being, and even survival, of the society. Through participation in public discourse, such depictions surely bestowed a demonstrable degree of power on women generally.
5 Theorizing the Dutch Spectatrix
While I am certain that my assertions of female agency and power as modeled after the Maid of Holland will meet with skepticism amongst some art historians, it should be remembered from the introduction that recent scholarship on early modern women has led to a much more nuanced sense of female agency. The many instances of female autonomy that have been discovered provide significant evidence of women’s impact on cultural development. Habermas’s redefining of the public sphere in the early modern era, for example, has allowed for the possibility of feminist interventions into that realm that did not previously exist. He asserts that by the eighteenth century the bourgeois public sphere was firmly developed, via the press, as well as reading societies, salons, and coffee houses.83 Some feminists note that this model allowed women to influence the public sphere in informal ways via literary and artistic discussions.84
In relation to this article, several historians have suggested that the formation of a bourgeois public sphere began even earlier in the Dutch Republic.85 In fact, some see this society as one marked by constant debate in which all segments of the population were able to participate.86 The discussions of women, as well as men, are often reflected in the various forms of printed text and image of the era.87 Also, literary and cultural societies, which included women, were established to discuss public concerns and ideas. In addition, women were involved in the producing and consuming of art in this middle-class society, which further aided their participation in structuring the new public sphere. For Habermas, the creation of an art for the people meant that now private individuals would be determining the meaning of these products through their own discussion.88 In this manner, the art purchased and created by the Dutch spectatrix could engage in the structuring of public gender identity without necessarily conforming to the patriarchal ideologies of much prescriptive literature.
As previously discussed, recent scholarship has turned away from earlier patriarchal models that sharply contrasted male and female experience historically. Nevertheless, in art historical studies of the Dutch Golden Age, there has been less enthusiasm for this revisionist approach. For example, at the very moment when early modern historians were rejecting the oppressive public/private paradigm of the past, historians of Dutch art were embracing it.89 These analyses agreed for the most part that a rather firm boundary existed between the public and the private with women relegated to the domestic realm under the control of patriarchy. In addition, as asserted by Westermann in her 2002 state of the research survey of Dutch art historical studies, the introduction of gender theory was having little impact on the field.90 Therefore, the contention that women artists and patrons acted autonomously to overcome gender biases and create public, powerful reputations for themselves in a proto-feminist manner has previously met with, and will probably continue to meet with, resistance from several scholars.91 Nevertheless, it is important to recall the embattled language of some of these women. They were obviously aware of the patriarchal construction of their societies, and their agenda reveals an early feminist strategy of celebrating the public accomplishments of women, of declaring women to be equal with men in their capabilities, and of encouraging other women to fight against certain traditional gender boundaries. Van Schurman’s earlier quoted call to arms is particularly illuminating in this regard:
These are the words of a woman consciously choosing to exert her agency to make women the intellectual and social equals of men. Furthermore, the demonstrated adulation of this woman by her female contemporaries suggests that they too must have desired some of this same autonomy. And finally, the constant visibility of a strong female archetype that conjured up both allegorical and actual cultural memories in domestic material culture suggests that women generally, not just female elites, were engaged in a constant reaffirming of consequential female influence and power in this society.
In most studies of Netherlandish art, however, there is an assumption that only men were capable of such individualistic behavior and free will in Dutch society. This hyperbolized sense of male autonomy has led to a very slanted perspective. Clearly, in certain instances of female fashioning, women were also innovatively attempting to construct public images for themselves that would promote them individually, but also the female sex as a whole. However, it was not only women viewers that were affected by these shifting definitions of female identity. As more Dutch women were integrated into the pantheon of allegorical and mythological heroines, it helped to alter views regarding female significance among both sexes. As a result, men of the era could also imagine a society where women were capable of attaining “manly” virtues such as bravery, intelligence, and artistic skill. So while many discussions of gendered gaze focus on biology, I have argued that spectators in this society were culturally constructed. Therefore, males did not constitute a monolithic entity that persistently saw women in a negative or subservient light. Indeed, the positive fashioning of female identity as influenced by Maid of Holland imagery was greatly enhanced by the contributions of male authors and artists, as they too subverted traditional gender norms by remarkably praising women and their accomplishments in both the public and private spheres.
But perhaps more importantly, I have argued that the Dutch Republic was a society in which this type of imagining was particularly enhanced for women through the constant visualization of the heroic Hollandia and her heiresses. With this recovery of an autonomous spectatrix, there is still recognition that while the position it propounds may not have triumphed over patriarchy in some political and social ways, it was not without the ability to influence cultural opinions regarding female identity. Consequently, Dutch patriarchy was constantly being tempered by a discourse that was sympathetic to powerful women and that accorded them value, thus enhancing the agency of women to envisage themselves in roles that appreciably revolutionized their position in society.