Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Petronella De la Court and Agneta Block: Experiencing Collections in Late Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam

Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Petronella De la Court and Agneta Block: Experiencing Collections in Late Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam

Article excerpt

The enigmatic Woman in a Study (Fig. 1) by Johannes Voorhout (1647-1723) illustrates the difficulties surrounding the study of female collectors in seventeenth-century Holland. The subject, wearing loose, generalized, antique clothing, sits in a book-lined room handling a sculpture fragment. A full-length statue confronts her across a paper-cluttered desk. In pose, dress, and location, this image closely resembles portraits of male scholars and art patrons. (1) The stretched canvas and glass ball, however, evoke studio scenes. In that context, women most often appear as personifications. (2) The sitter's all'antica garb lends itself to such a role. Yet, gendered pictorial traditions impede a decisive explication of the woman's relationship to the surrounding objects: does she control these items as a scholar and patron, or does she simply add to an overarching allegorical meaning? Inquiries into female involvement with collections yield similar difficulties since both archival evidence and scholarly traditions obscure the roles women played in collecting.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

In the Netherlands during the seventeenth century, male domination of marital property discouraged upper-class Dutch women from independently negotiating for high priced goods, and hence, they rarely figure in documents as buyers. (3) In addition, both single women and widows often empowered male relatives or agents to act as their representatives in business transactions. Since most studies of collecting establish patronage and responsibility by tracing the flow of money and goods, scholars have attributed the knowledge and interests motivating the acquisitions to the person conducting the transaction. (4) Such assumptions conceal the possible influence of other family members, including women.

This paper seeks to expand the present understanding of seventeenth-century Dutch collecting by considering the activities of two educated, upper-middle class women, Petronella de la Court (1624-1707) and Agneta Block (1629-1704). Both assembled admirable collections that equaled or exceeded in quality those gathered by their male peers. De la Court's fine collection of paintings and curiosities rivaled the renowned collections of such eminent citizens as Rembrandt's patron Jan Six (1618-1700). Agneta Block's exotic garden and works on paper surpassed the similar holdings of her respected cousin Philip de Flines (1640-1700). Achievements in themselves, the collections moreover testify to female engagement in intellectual pursuits that contemporaries generally regarded as the preserve of men. Through their collections, de la Court and Block asserted their places among the most discerning and knowledgeable members of upper-middle class society.

The Foundations for Collecting. De la Court and Block were unusual among Amsterdam's prosperous women in the second half of the seventeenth century in that they enjoyed long periods of financial independence. In general, the property that women brought to a marriage fell under at least the partial control of their spouses. (5) As in most European societies at this time, however, age and widowhood tended to grant women greater freedom. (6) Although De la Court's precise financial circumstances during her marriage are unknown, becoming a widow in 1684 gave her control over her own ample finances. (7) In Block's case, contractual stipulations she made at the time of her second marriage allowed her financial independence. When her uncle arranged her first marriage in 1649, he surrendered control of her funds to her new husband with the proviso in the nuptial contract that any gains or losses resulting from investment of the united funds would be split equally. The couple must have invested those funds wisely because they provided the financial resources that allowed Block to pursue her interests during her widowhood and second marriage. One of her first independent financial decisions occurred in 1670 when she purchased Vijverhof, a property and house along the river Vecht near Amsterdam, as part of the estate settlement after her husband's death. …

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