By Molly McKenna
Virtuous women -- it is a lost theme in our own day, but not a neglected one in ages past. Seventeenth-century Netherlands witnessed an extremely wide range of artistic subject matter, style, medium, and themes, but artists frequently featured women as beacons of domestic virtue. Because virtue is neglected today, few of us know how to interpret the messages of these lovely paintings. A deeper look reveals a beautiful nobility and depth that these artists saw in the daily life of women.
Pieter de Hooch studied and portrayed the emotional bonds of mothers and children. His work shows the home as the mother’s domain. De Hooch’s 1658 The Courtyard of a House in Delft, in its depiction of a maid and child in a quiet outdoor setting, celebrates a life of simplicity and raising children. The maid, whose white cap symbolizes purity, lovingly holds the small child’s hand. Even in small details, virtue is extolled -- the stone tablet over the meticulously-painted doorway reads, “This is in Saint Jerome’s vale, if you wish to repair to patience and meekness. For we must first descend if we wish to be raised.”
De Hooch’s painting style also affirms this theme of morality and order. The stone floor emits a subtle glow, suggesting that it has recently been swept and polished. Each brick is carefully painted in great detail. The symmetry conveys a sense of calmness. The courtyard itself acts as a microcosm of virtue. Sin and chaos cannot enter the perfectly-laid brick walls. It has a Garden of Eden aura, furthered by the presence of ivy and well-tended plants. The courtyard is a safe haven, inhabited only by the virtuous maid and her sweet charge.
De Hooch’s A Girl with a Basket in a Garden presents a similar theme of humility. The servant girl carries a shallow straw basket filled with recently picked beans. The downcast eyes of the girl, along with the clear evidence of her labors, points to her virtue of humility.
Vermeer produced a great deal of domestic paintings, with a focus less on childrearing and more on women’s solitary activities. Some of the women engage in appropriate leisure activities that suggest their education and refinement. Others, of lower economic status, perform simple, womanly duties. The Milkmaid, arguably his most famous, presents a woman in a domestic interior, completing a humble task.
One can sense a great dignity in the maid’s strong arms, simple garb, and pulled-back hair. Vermeer praises austerity not only through the woman’s dress, but also through the interior of the room. The food on the table is not extravagant. Milk and bread convey a sense of frugality, another virtue. The favorable traits of quiet dignity, moderation, diligence, and simplicity mark this well-known masterpiece.
Portraits of women also highlighted their virtuous character. Gerard Dou’s Portrait of a Young Woman shows a young woman sitting in a stiff, upright position. This posture alone signifies that she is of a noble family and implies her purity and goodness. The books on her lap, a songbook and a Bible, also prove her character. Literacy rates among women weren’t extremely high, but women were still expected to emulate the lives of female Biblical figures. Dou and the parents of the sitter likely chose to include these texts for the very purpose of touting the girl’s most admirable qualities and alignment with Old and New Testament women.
Rembrandt’s Old Woman Praying also presents this very straightforward piety. Likely modeled off of his mother, Cornelia, the woman folds her hands in prayer and bows her head. The eyes are cast humbly downward. Like De Hooch’s maidservant, the woman doesn’t display one trace of haughtiness, but is focused on prayer. Gold leaf in the background creates a luminous effect, lending an overall aura of holiness to the entire work. The light suggests that her lost physical beauty has been replaced with profound spiritual beauty.
Motherly love and tenderness marks countless paintings, mirroring images of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. In his Woman Nursing a Child, de Hooch emphasizes the mother’s gaze upon her babe. Utmost love, compassion, and gentleness are clear in the woman’s eyes. Furthermore, the light that envelopes both mother and child seems to place them in their own realm, outside of the sparsely-decorated and very polished room. All else exists in dimmer lighting. The woman stands as a true parallel to the Virgin Mary, especially as she is clothed in blue and red—the colors most often associated with Our Lady.
Other works make similar analogies to the Virgin Mary. Gabriel Metsu’s The Sick Child, dated between 1660 and 1665, calls to mind the Pietà when the lamenting Virgin holds her crucified son. Gabriel Metsu’s work shows a mother, dressed in the colors of Mary, holding her ill child upon her lap. The image of the Crucifixion on the wall behind her further suggests that Metsu meant to echo the Pietà.
Though often constructed from the artist’s imagination, the scenes highlight the true way in which women carried themselves and lived out their lives. They faithfully performed their duties to hearth and home, helping to maintain godliness in their communities. Artists’ uses of symbolic objects, symmetric lines, posture, facial expression, color, and much more accentuated their aims of illustrating women’s virtue. Truly, these paintings of maids and housewives assert the majesty and importance of women in seventeenth-century Holland. Though centuries old, these paintings can still teach us a great deal in their symbolism to help us on the path to holiness.