Maria of Nesse was dead. Forgotten, lost in the mists of time for more than 350 years. Until 2019. Then researcher Robbert Jan van der Maal made a special discovery in a Belgian family archive. Among the papers he found a dusty manuscript of over two hundred pages. It turned out to be from a Maria van Nesse, a woman who had lived in Alkmaar between 1588 and 1650. A book about this manuscript is published on Wednesday, and Maria van Nesse is, in one fell swoop, ‘the seventeenth-century woman who we know the most about and the best documented art buyer of our time’.
So says Judith Noorman, art historian at the University of Amsterdam. She specializes in the role women played in the art market during the Golden Age and, together with Van der Maal, has produced the book on Van Nesse’s writing. “This is an amazing find. It is incredible that in the 21st century one should discover such a detailed source about a time that has already been studied so intensively. Maria van Nesse immediately enters the top ten of people from the Golden Age, whose daily life we can best reconstruct. The other nine are men.”
Maria van Nesse was not just any woman. She was single, Catholic and very wealthy – a combination quite unusual for the time. At her death in 1650, her fortune was determined to be 77,007 guilders, which is equivalent to about 800,000 euros. And that didn’t include cash, loans and the value of her jewelry. Maria’s brother-in-law Jacob Nobel, who was married to her sister Adriana, was to be in 37th place on the list of the richest Dutchmen of the Golden Age, with a wealth of more than 800,000 guilders. So she belonged to a real Quote 500 family.
“Mary was part of one percent of its time”, Noorman agrees. “She owned land, which she leased, and real estate, which she rented and sold. That she put her expenses in writing from 1623 to 1644 was therefore not due to her having difficulty making ends meet.”
Van Nesse’s financial accounts are the core of the manuscript. It concerns all kinds of expenses, from daily purchases to the purchase of an altar for the church. However, she also noticed other things: recipes for dishes and medicine, a random comment about a nice saying or notes about herself and her family. Noorman: “The latter category is rare. That’s why we don’t call it a diary. However, it is not a pure cash book either, so we ended up with the term memory book, a term that Maria and her sister also use. She wrote down the things she wanted to remember later. It could be a maid’s wages, but also a remedy for a toothache.”
Van Nesse lived in a beautiful building on the Langestraat in Alkmaar – on his own, apart from the resident staff. “We can’t say for sure why she didn’t get married, but I think it was for religious reasons,” says Noorman. “Mary had a hairpiece – made from her sister’s hair – and she wore glasses, so maybe she wasn’t very attractive. But with a fortune like hers, I’m sure she could have found a husband. The choice to remain single was therefore deliberate and only possible because she was very wealthy. She was a spiritual virgin. You couldn’t become a nun in the republic because Catholics were oppressed, but that way it was still possible for a woman to devote herself to the faith.”
In addition to the relatives with whom she was close – her brother and his family lived two doors down the road – there was another important man in Van Nesse’s life: Pastor Johannes Kater. He became her confessor in 1639, and from that moment began a period of deep spirituality for her. “She then became an important patron of his Laurentiuskerk,” says Noorman. “In her accounts the expenditure on religious affairs is sky high.”
Could more have happened between the rich lady and her advisor? Noorman: “Well, were there feelings of love too? It just could be, but the source doesn’t say anything about it. As a historian, I cannot answer that question.”
In the three years she worked with Van Nesse, Noorman built a bond with her research object, she says. “At some point her brother and her nephew die, perhaps from the plague. Maria takes her niece in and sends gifts from Amsterdam to cheer her up. After I read that passage, I walked around the block for a while. After all, you live with someone.”
the gold rim
The concept of the Golden Age has recently become controversial among some historians and museums because this era was by no means gilded for everyone. Life for ordinary peasants and artisans was not exactly brilliant, not to mention the suffering of the slaves. Maria van Nesse clearly belonged to that group of Dutch people for whom the seventeenth century was indeed a golden age, even though she was discriminated against as a Catholic. Still, her memoir also gives an insight into the existence of ordinary men and women in this time, says Noorman. “In that respect, the publication of our book and the online publication of the manuscript, provided by volunteers from the regional archive Alkmaar, certainly contribute to an inclusive historiography of the Golden Age.”
Also read: Why This Historian Won’t Drop The Term ‘Golden Age’
Van Nesse noted everything. Like the one time she gave the locksmith’s son a cake to come over after work to do a job. Or about that argument with a maid who thought her employer was too strict. Noorman: “She had said: I just can’t meet your demands, so I’m stopping. The next day she was back, sent by her mother. The family could not miss the income. You can see in the accounts that her salary has increased after this collision, so the maid had achieved success after all.’
Barrels of beer, half oxen and art
Maria van Nesse bought a huge amount of art. In addition to baby clothes, beer kegs, skirts and half oxen, there are no fewer than 89 paintings in her memorial book. “They weren’t the great artists of the time,” says Noorman, “but they were top three of the local painters. Unfortunately, the collection has completely fallen apart, and in 2022 we know for sure that no painting was hers. Fortunately, nice things were read about her taste and order in her notes, such as about a painting in which she had herself depicted as Mary Magdalene.”
Noorman noted how normal it seemed for Van Nesse to buy paintings. “Nowadays, art is something very special, which lies outside of ordinary life. Especially when it comes to expensive art. But for Maria, art was part of everyday consumption. She hired a maid, bought a bucket – and a painting.”
No portrait of Maria van Nesse herself has survived, as there are of her mother, sister and brother-in-law. Noorman: “On the one hand, it’s a shame, because I’m naturally curious about what she looked like. But on the other hand, it is also beautiful. You are forced to delve into the text and thus create your own image of her.”
Judith Noorman and Robbert Jan van der Maal: The unique memorial book of Maria van Nesse 1588-1650. Amsterdam University Press. 328 pages €34.99
On 26 November the exhibition ‘Rijk & Independent. Maria van Nesse (1588-1650)’ in the municipal museum in Alkmaar.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 9 November 2022