The Space Between Non-Arts and Fine Arts: Confronting gender and the decorative arts, 1500–1800

Samantha Chang, University of Toronto,

Lauryn Smith, Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Museum of Art,

Moderator: Tara Hamling (University of Birmingham)

The decorative arts are not easily defined and have long occupied the shifting space between the non-arts and the fine arts. During the early modern period, prominent women, such as Catherine de’ Medici and Amalia van Solms-Braunfels, were at the forefront of amassing impressive collections of decorative objects. Many more were gifted to women to commemorate momentous moments in their lives. Recent exhibitions and publications highlight early modern women as participants in the creating, cultivating and collecting of decorative objects; however, the examination of women’s agency and visibility is still limited. In this session, we confront the impact of early modern women instigators as conscious creators or collectors of everyday and luxury objects. What role does gender play in the creation of decorative works and the cultivation of a collection? To what extent can a collection reflect its users, and what agencies do the objects retain?

Speakers & Abstracts

 ‘Pictures of Men, Birds, Beasts and Flow’rs’: Susanna Perwich and the mysteries of LACMA’s 17th-century needlework cabinet

Isabella Rosner (King’s College London)

This paper evolved from the study of a single object, specifically a 17th-century embroidered cabinet in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Researching this cabinet began with the discovery of a rare, unusual detail on the object – a coat of arms. The paper explores the likelihood that the maker of this cabinet, as established by its coat of arms, was a member of the Perwich family, who ran a girls’ school in Civil War-era London. It raises the possibility that the cabinet was made by Susanna Perwich, a musical prodigy and subject of a 1661 biography, The Virgins Pattern (Simon Dover), published shortly after her untimely death.

The paper also discusses connections between Perwich’s life and the cabinet’s needleworked illustrations, revealing that the cabinet illustrates the Book of Ruth. Cabinets and caskets with their many compartments can be seen as metaphors for the compartmentalisation of the lives of late 17th-century Englishwomen who were excluded from many male-dominated physical and intellectual spaces in the aftermath of the English Civil War but who, nonetheless, created and meaningfully embellished personal objects in their own spaces.


Renaissance Birth Trays and the Power of Women: Celebratory gifts or moral reminders?

Serenella Sessini (V&A)

Painted birth trays (deschi da parto) were functional objects given as presents to women to be used during the laying in period, after the birth of a child. Usually decorated on both sides, they presented a variety of subjects that were considered to be appropriate for such objects, such as scenes of childbirth or various amorous topics (such as the garden of love and the triumph of Venus). Among the depictions painted upon them was the Triumph of Love, a subject originally taken from Petrarch’s Trionfi. A few trays with this subject include additional characters that are not present in the original literary source, pertaining to the theme of ‘the power of women’, such as Phyllis riding on Aristotle’s back, Virgil in the basket and Hercules holding a spindle.

In this paper I analyse the popularity and dissemination of these themes in Renaissance Florence, combining literary and visual sources, and analysing and establishing comparisons with illuminated manuscripts, decorated furniture, prints, and other objects that were primarily destined for a female audience. Through that, it is possible to re-contextualise these particular birth trays within the wider domestic environment and gain new insight into the purposes of these objects, and how these depictions could have been understood by their recipients.

Behind the Painted Gems: Three Medici women’s jewellery inventories

Claire Litt (Queen’s University)

In 1590, the new Grand Duchess of Tuscany Christine of Lorraine’s official portrait by Scipione Pulzone showed her alongside two notoriously opulent Medici state jewels. Around her neck was the ducal necklace, while her hand rested on a nearby table beside the ducal crown. Christine wore a matching bejewelled belt with a large baroque pearl that dangled conspicuously over her stomach – a visual clue rendered in the Medici’s signature combination of rubies, diamonds and pearls of her essential role in the family’s dynastic ambitions. A poem celebrating her inauguration by the courtier Diomede Borghesi went further, equating Cristina with cristalli. Following this culturally pervasive Petrarchan trope in which women were metaphorically transmuted into gemstones, scholarship on jewels and the Medici women has viewed the women as symbolic bodies for the conspicuous display of dynastic jewels. Little has been written, however, about the Medici women’s personal collections and uses of their jewellery. Behind the painted gems in their portraits, voluminous archival holdings of Medici women’s jewellery inventories provide details about their ownership and trajectory through generations. The comparison of six inventories of jewellery belonging to Christine and two of her daughters, Eleonora and Claudia de’ Medici, reveals Christine’s matrilineal management of the Medici jewels. While Medici women were themselves put on public display as ‘state jewels’, behind the scenes, they leveraged the value, meanings and ownership of their jewellery to circumvent the system of primogeniture and visually reinforce female familial bonds within the patriarchal family structure of early modern Italy.

Materialising Trade, Conquest and Dynasty in the Cabinets of Amalia van Solms-Braunfels (1602–75), Princess of Orange

Lauryn Smith (Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Museum of Art)

In the 17th century, prominent figures were collecting and displaying the world unlike anyone had in the past. Few were as innovative as Amalia van Solms-Braunfels (1602–75), Princess of Orange, who carefully curated novel ensembles of decorative and fine art objects, produced both locally and globally, in her various cabinets. These intimate spaces included a seemingly eclectic ensemble of materials such as crystal, agate, amber, coral and porcelain, as well as objects comprising tortoiseshell, ivory, lacquerwork and mother of pearl. Many of these objects were from or incorporated materials from Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Middle East. Specific decorative objects and arrangements from Amalia’s collection, such as her notorious passion for porcelain and her famous lacquer-walled cabinet at Huis ten Bosch, have previously been discussed in scholarship. These studies, while informative, do not provide a comprehensive understanding of how Amalia acquired such objects. Drawing upon the growing fields of material culture and global studies, this presentation investigates the economic, social and political infrastructures that allowed Amalia to cultivate a global, social network to acquire fine and decorative works. It interrogates how, once acquired, these objects were de- and re-contextualised within the most intimate spaces of Amalia’s apartments to construct her various identities – as wife, mother, consort, princess – and further the status and prestige of the House of Orange.






70 Cowcross Street
London EC1M 6EJ

+44(0)20 7490 3211