17th Century Multiverse: The woman who follows me from painting to painting by Valentina Fazio


Public alleyway between yards seems like a quiet place. Here we see a pregnant woman carrying a jug for milk or water on her way to fill it up. A pigeon sits closeby.
Hendrick van der Burch, Courtyard Scene with a Pregnant Woman, 1655-1665. Oil on panel.Gift of Merle J. and Emily N. Trees. 1951-1-1


A small girl watches as an older woman serves two men at table. Their attitude filled with laughter. The little girl watches in silence.
A Dutch Courtyard by Pieter de Hooch


A woman gives a young child butter in a domestic setting in this print
"Buttery" by Timothy Cole after Pieter de Hooch. Photo taken at Harvard Art Museum by Valentina Fazio, 2023.
Student Engagement

My favorite part about working at Krannert Art Museum has been the relationship I’ve developed with all the works of art on display. My first days at the museum were spent getting acquainted with the faces and forms that line the walls, and now, nearly two years later, the bond I have developed with the artwork follows me on and off campus.

There is one painting at KAM that struck me the first time I saw it: Courtyard Scene with Pregnant Woman, by Hendrick van der Burch (1627-1664). Van der Burch was a Dutch golden age painter who is best known for his subject matter, depicting intimate scenes of daily life that have an air of authenticity, almost reminiscent of candid photographs rather than carefully composed figures.

The first time I saw this painting I was completely immersed in the world it illustrates and intrigued by its enigmatic subject: the pregnant woman. The woman looks unburdened, glancing at a pigeon on the ground before her with a ghost of a smile forming on her lips. She is surrounded by rich, golden, glossy buildings, and the entire painting radiates a sense of peace and warmth. She carries a vase—candidly captured completing a mundane task— yet there is a sense of leisure and freedom that speaks to me every time I visit her.

One day, I was poking around the Idea Store, when I suddenly reached into a crate of paintings and posters and pulled out a hard panel of cardboard, on which an image of a painting I had never seen before had been printed. Only I had seen it before. It was like seeing a familiar place from an angle you had never seen it from before but being able to identify it anyways.

The painting depicts a small courtyard with three figures at a table—two men sitting across from each other and a woman standing beside them— and a small child in the corner, watching them. The men look friendly, one even smiling at her as she takes a sip from a tall glass. Despite the lack of rich, buttery, golden buildings, I recognized the same small brick structures in the courtyard that lined the street in the painting at KAM. The woman is unmistakably the same, her rounded belly emphasized by the same blue smock and her hair tucked away under the same white cloth. What I recognized in her the most was not her dress or even her face, but the casual air surrounding her, an approachable and easy presence that I imagined she embodied both on and off the canvas.

This work, titled A Dutch Courtyard, was painted by Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684). Pieter de Hooch and Hendrick van der Burch both lived in Delft, a city in the Western Netherlands, and an archival document dated back to 1652 reveals that the two men signed a will together, and they eventually became brothers-in-law[1]. The relationship between these two painters taking place in the same city explains the similarities between both works, but the woman remains a mystery.

I saw her once more at the Harvard Art Museum over spring break this year in a print titled Buttery, created by Timothy Cole (1852-1931) after Pieter de Hooch. The print comes from a wood engraving and depicts a woman—the woman— smiling at a young girl, handing her a vase, in a domestic setting.

In 17th century Dutch genre paintings, there was a distinction between sitters and models. Sitters were people who posed for the artist and were paid for their time, representing specific, recognizable individuals. Models, on the other hand, were not paid, and were more often used as “props” to enhance the composition of a painting, representing a kind of person rather than a specific individual.

It is possible that this woman was a model, used by both artists as a subject to communicate notions of Dutch domesticity and motherhood in architecturally contrived settings.

Regardless of her intended role in these three artworks, I will always think of the Dutch pregnant woman fondly and wonder what she is smiling about.


[1] Franits, Wayne E. “Delft.” Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic Evolution, Yale University Press, 2008, pp. 160–166.