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Senior Thesis on Women in 17th-Century Holland

Lara Yeager, Class of 2006

My project was to travel to the Netherlands to conduct research for my senior thesis. My main activities were in Amsterdam and The Hague, where I researched seventeenth-century emblem books and genre paintings. In my thesis I plan to argue that in the seventeenth century Dutch Republic women were instructed on how to be domestically and sexually virtuous through the use of humor in images of everyday life. This instruction began in emblem books, a combination of image and text, and then spread to genre paintings, together making depictions of female virtue ubiquitous in the Republic.

The main intention of my research was to examine various emblem books at Leiden University, the University of Amsterdam, Utrecht University and the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. However, the collection at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (the National Library of the Netherlands) turned out to be extensive and I was able to complete all of my emblem research there. In the special collections area I examined about fifteen emblem books and various other female conduct books, all of which were in surprisingly good condition considering their age. Some of the books that I examined were: Johan de Brune’s Zinne-werck (1624), Jacob Cats’s Spiegel van den Ouden ende Nieuwen Tijdt (1632), Silenus Alcibiades sive Proteus (1617), Houwelyck (1628), Zacharias Heyn’s Emblemata (1625) and Roemer Visscher’s Sinnepoppen (1614).

In between my time at the library I visited art museums in Amsterdam (the Rijksmuseum, Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam Historisch Museum), The Hague (the Mauritshuis and the Bredius Museum) and Haarlem (the Frans Hals Museum). Each contained marvelous examples of paintings of women by artists such as Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Frans Mieris, Judith Leyster and Casper Netscher. The opportunity to view the emblem books and the paintings in their original environment gave me a greater sense of their meaning and the history of the country. I also had the opportunity to meet Eric Jan Sluijter, a distinguished art historian at the University of Amsterdam, who aided me in my research.

The opportunity to view the emblem books and the paintings in their original environment gave me a greater sense of their meaning and the history of the country. Only by coming to the Netherlands and looking at endless images and spending time with its people could I gain a better understanding of my topic. The travel award not only allowed me to do essential research for my thesis (without which I do not know if the thesis would be possible), but also provided me with an exciting opportunity to conduct research in a foreign country as an undergraduate. The experience, both stimulating and instructive, gave me the independence to explore and examine a new environment as a historian. For that, the experience will remain invaluable.