Representing Women: Gender and Portraiture in 17th-Century Europe

Nicolaes Maes (Dutch, 1634–1693)
Interior with a Dordrecht Family, 1656
Oil on canvas
The Norton Simon Foundation, F.1972.15.2.P

A woman sits across from her merchant husband, who rests on a tall stool behind the couple’s three well-behaved children. The bright whites, soft blues and reddish-pink tones of the children’s clothing resonate with their mother’s dress, affirming the connection among these figures. The eldest daughter extends a small red fruit to her left toward the baby in her mother’s lap, and to her right she holds a basket of apples and grapes with the help of her other sibling, creating an alternating chain of fruit and children. This arrangement would have reminded 17th-century viewers of biblical passages that linked fertility to womanly virtue, such as Psalm 128:3: “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house.” While the painting celebrates the mother’s role as the progenitor of the family’s legacy, it does not depict the labor of wet nurses—women who breastfed the children of their employers—or of domestic workers who may have also cared for these young children.