A source from the seventeenth century was discovered by chance in a Belgian family archive. It was the household book of a wealthy, Catholic, unmarried woman from Alkmaar: Maria van Nesse. UvA art historian Judith Noorman and researcher Robbert Jan van der Maal have written a book about it. “It's like watching a movie about the seventeenth century and now suddenly that movie is in high definition.”
While searching a Belgian family archive, researcher Robbert Jan van der Maal discovered a bundle of oblong papers, meticulously described. “It's the most inconspicuous little package imaginable; it's even a little dirty on the outside,” tells UvA art historian Judith Noorman. “The sheets of paper are tied together with string.”
It turned out to be a memoir - a kind of book and diary at the same time - of the Alkmaar lady Maria van Nesse. Between 1623 and 1646, she kept accurate records of her household consumption from the purchase of presents for St. Nicholas to the cost of landscape paintings, and what the delivery man received for them (two guilders).
The find instantly put Van Nesse among the best-documented people of her time. Says Noorman: “For a source from the seventeenth century, there is an incredible amount of detail. It's as if we were watching a movie about the seventeenth century and with the discovery of this source, that movie is suddenly in high definition.”
Maria van Nesse was wealthier than the average woman. At her death, she left 78,000 guilders. Her brother-in-law would later count among the very richest 250 people of the seventeenth century, thanks in part to Van Nesse's inheritance, which came to him through his wife and Maria's sister.
Van Nesse always remained unmarried. When she made her notes, she was among the elder daughters, meaning unmarried women who were over twenty-five. In the seventeenth-century republic, elder daughters were able to trade, so Van Nesse could make her own decisions, strike deals, and buy art.
The memoir fits right into Noorman's multi-year NWO research project: the impact of women on the seventeenth-century art market. Noorman calls it an “incredible stroke of luck” that Robbert Jan van der Maal found the book in the family archives. “It was like something I would have dreamed up myself.”
In what era did Maria van Nesse live?
“The seventeenth century was a period in which many changes followed in rapid succession. In the first half, the republic was at war with Spain. The VOC and WIC were founded at the beginning of the century. Many people moved to the cities. Some people came into considerable prosperity. Extra money was spent on luxury goods. The art market also developed: production rose exponentially, both in quantity and quality.”
Who was Maria van Nesse? Did she fit the description of Hollanders and West Frisians as “pious, honest, and frugal”?
“I think she was all of those, but she was more complex than that. She was independent and enjoyed her independence. But we have many other details. She loved small children and beautiful things, and she did not want a dog as a pet. Her personality also contained paradoxes: she loved children but could be hard on young maids.”
Did she seem like a nice woman to you, a nice neighbor?
“I find that hard to say. I think it depended on who you were. She was respectful but could also be very strict. She was also Catholic and had absolutely no love for Protestants. She ordered a Protestant maid to go with her to the Catholic church on Sundays. The girl refused to accept that condition and thus did not enter Van Nesse's service. It shows rigidity; that would be dealt with differently today.”
What things did you recognize in her notes?
“Things from everyday life. At one point she says she doesn't want to wear shoes with heels again because she's too old for them now anyway. Or when she was walking down the street with her sister and her collar slipped off. Later, someone came to return it. The woman didn't want anything for it. You can see yourself standing at your front door.
What was very different was the amount of money she had, and the ease with which she spent it while being surrounded by many people who had no money at all at a time when there was no government safety net. It might not be great now, either, but it's better than it was back then. Back then, you had to depend on someone like Maria van Nesse making pancakes. That's a big difference.”
You found nothing in the book about the VOC, trade, and slavery. Would she have known anything about that?
“The book is not about the great military heroes or important citizens (stadholders). It is about daily life in Alkmaar. When Van Nesse provided a feast, she cooked with spices and had sugar in the house. But she rarely wrote where those products came from. Once she mentioned ‘the East’ because she had bought over a ton of salt from someone who moved there. It is purely because of consumption that it is occasionally mentioned. Whether she knew anything about it is hard to say. We think of the Dutch East India Company and colonization when we think of the long-glorified ‘Golden Age,’ but in her memoir, those topics hardly appear, if at all. She does, however, note other forms of inequality such as poverty, the marginalization of Catholics, and gender inequality. Her life took place in Alkmaar. Thus, the memoir reflects local history. Only through household consumption is she connected to the rest of the world.”
Do Maria van Nesse's notes say anything about the image of women in the Golden Age?
“Yes and no. She was, of course, only one woman. At the same time, she wrote about many different people, including other Catholic women. It seems that many unmarried women were in contact with each other and formed a kind of network. They got together, exchanged gifts, and cleaned and decorated the church. In other words, she wrote about the whole world around her: her network of women, her family, the shopkeepers, and artisans in Alkmaar.
Has your view of the seventeenth century changed?
“Yes, very much so, both in the big picture and small details. For example, we see in minute detail how a household was run, and what people earned from it. Her role in the church is also very well documented. She combined her role as a so-called clergy daughter with her role as patron (benefactor). What I find very special and what hits home for me as an art historian is that she was a very well-documented art buyer. It was long thought that only men bought paintings, but that does not appear to be the case here. There are no fewer than 89 paintings in her memoir. Paintings were utilitarian objects for her. They hung over a fireplace or above candles. She writes at one point that she got a piece of paper with blue powder to clean the paintings. I haven't been able to find out what that is, but I can imagine that the paintings suffered.”
Judith Noorman and Robbert Jan van der Maal, The unique memoir of Maria van Nesse 1588-1650. New perspectives on domestic consumption. (Amsterdam, 2022) Price: €34.99.
From November 26, 2022 to March 19, 2023, the exhibition “Rich & Independent. Maria van Nesse (1588 - 1650)” can be seen in the the Stedelijk Museum in Alkmaar.