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Petronella Oortman

In the seventeenth century in Europe, dollhouses in the homes of the well to do were actually pieces of furniture. The dollhouse would be part of a cupboard or armoire. Most had legs with cabinet doors to open to the dollhouse interior. These dollhouse cupboards were not for children, they were constructed for the woman of the home as part of an elegant home décor. Men had similar cabinets for their collections of objects d’art.

One of the most famous dollhouses and one that has survived through the ages was commissioned by an affluent woman in Amsterdam, Petronella Oortman. This particular dollhouse built in 1686, is a true one of a kind dollhouse with artists of the day contributing individuals works of art, and furniture makers making furniture with all the detail of full size furniture, all made exactly to scale. Oortman even commissioned the porcelain miniatures to be made in China. The cost of the dollhouse cabinet is estimated to be twenty to thirty thousand guilders, which at today’s exchange rate, would be the price of an actual home. The dollhouse is currently part of the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

The cabinet measures 255X189.5X78 cm. The dollhouse has a linen room, maid’s rooms complete with box beds and chamber pots, foot warmers, firepan, and spinning wheel. The luxurious nursery has a gilt mirror, a ceiling painting, silk screens with parrot designs, a wicker baby chair, and cradle. The salon of the Oortman dollhouse which in the 17th century was the room where visitors were received features floor to ceiling wall murals done by Nicolaes Piemont. There are also paintings by the artist Willem van Royen, in place on the chimneypiece. The furniture in the elegant salon includes eleven Spanish chairs, a backgammon table and a tea table with a top that folds down.

The Oortman dollhouse also includes a hallway with a marble floor, and a ceiling painting of Aurora, the goddess of dawn and monochromatic paintings called grisailles. Opening off the hallway is the room for the master of the home called the comptoir, from which you could originally see a geometrically laid out garden with a working fountain. Any wealthy home in the 17th century would also have a room set aside for the women of the house to give birth called the lying in room. This dollhouse has a lying in room which contains a bed set in alcove, a folding screen, a cradle and a brazier to help dry baby diapers. We only know what lying in rooms looked like in Europe from dollhouses as few have survived in European homes. As in any fine home in the 17th century the Oortman dollhouse has both a best kitchen and a cookroom. The best kitchen was used for meals and storing utensils and tableware, while the cookroom was just for cooking meals. The best kitchen in the Oortman dollhouse contains dishes specially made in China and Japan, an exotic looking parrot cage. The cookroom or backroom in the dollhouse contains a sink with a copper pump which used to actually work, miniature food made from wax, and sterling silver forks and knives. The Tapestry room illustrates the types of tapestries that were common in 17th century homes but which have only survived in the dollhouses of the time. The painter Johannes Voorhut is responsible for the painted bible scene on the chimney, and points to the actual use of this room which was for mourning the dead.

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