Courtney Harris

Have I always loved small things? I’ve asked myself that question many times over the past few years as my obsession with all things miniature has grown and grown. I was certainly interested in tiny objects before the doll’s house arrived at the MFA in 2017 thanks to the generosity of Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, but its appearance and immediate integration into our galleries fanned the flames of my growing love for everything small.

An object like the doll’s house is full—literally and figuratively—with opportunity. Opportunities for research, for study, for connection, for exploration. With nine rooms and more than 200 silver miniatures, it begs for repeat visits. This house has become a living object to me—one I come back to time and time again. I probably speak, write, and think about this artwork more than any other in the Museum.

Of course, I have favorite rooms and favorite miniatures, though these have changed over the years. Right now I’m in love with the music room (middle floor, right side) with the striking set of porcelain vases and the detailed and elegant musical instruments throughout. I also cannot stop thinking about the beautiful and fragile wirework baskets in the kitchen (lower floor, left side) and laundry room (upper floor, right side). Can you imagine weaving silver strands together on such a small scale? It’s almost unbelievable. And finally, I love the quiet calm feeling in the nursery (upper floor center), where all of the objects lie in wait for the arrival of a new baby: linens, cradles, and baskets for laundry.

Over the last year and half, the doll’s house has taken on an even larger space in my mind as I’ve worked with a team of MFA staff on a major renovation, reinterpretation, and reinstallation of our world-class collection of Dutch and Flemish art. Our focus on art from the Low Countries has been intense over the past few years, spurred by the establishment of the Center for Netherlandish Art and landmark gifts from Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie.

In some ways, the doll’s house embodies—in miniature—both what is unique about Dutch society in the 17th century and everything new about these galleries. We’ve chosen to approach the art of the 17th century through the lens of global trade, highlighting the networks that brought commodities and luxury goods from far afield to the Dutch Republic. Those luxury goods, like porcelain, or consumable goods like sugar and tobacco, were incorporated into daily life for the growing middle class, prompting new ways of living. To reflect these ideas, our new galleries present the sumptuous paintings that the period is known for alongside equally high-quality decorative arts and works on paper. The doll’s house does the same thing, combining objects made close to home like silver miniatures with those imported from overseas like porcelain—all in a domestic setting. And together in a delightfully tiny package: How can we not be enchanted?

A wooden cabinet housing small rooms decorated with miniature furniture to look like a 17th-century Dutch house.
Doll’s house, Dutch. Pencil drawings: attributed to Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen; silver: 17th–18th centuries; mother-of-pearl plaque: 1650–1700; glass: 17th and 19th centuries; walnut clothes press: 1690–1710, adapted in 2014–16; wood case: 17th century; hard-paste porcelain: China, Qing dynasty (Kangxi period), 17th–18th centuries. Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection.

This is what I love about miniature things: they contain worlds within them. Living with the doll’s house at the MFA since 2017, I feel like we’ve become linked. I research it, move the objects within it, think about it, and talk about it—sometimes I even envision a tiny version of myself moving from room to room! Have I become the embodiment of its inhabitant?

We’re lucky to know a great deal about Dutch doll’s houses and the role they played in elite society. Historical records show that they were created and cared for by women, and generally passed down through generations from mother to daughter. I wonder if these women ever imagined shrinking themselves down and living in the house like I do! I not only love this object, but I also feel like I’m the latest in a line of stewards—of this house and the entire tradition of Dutch doll’s houses. I am proud of that.

Author

Courtney Harris is assistant curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Art of Europe.