Rival women at the Court of The Hague
Dr Nadine Akkerman, lecturer in Early Modern Literature and postdoctoral researcher in Leiden, has written a new book to accompany the exhibition on Elizabeth Stuart and Amalia von Solms at the Historical Museum of The Hague. ‘They were like goddesses, constantly trying to upstage one another,’ says Akkerman.
From penniless lady-in-waiting to princess
When Frederick V and his wife Stuart Princess Elizabeth fled from Bohemia to the Netherlands in 1621, among their court was Amalia van Solms, a penniless lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth. By 1625, Amalia, a renowned beauty, had married Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. This sudden change in her status, from lady-in-waiting to Princess of Orange led to an intense rivalry between her and Elizabeth. Elizabeth made it clear that she herself was a royal by divine appointment, while Amalia was merely a princess through marriage to an officer of the republic.
Trying to outdo one another
The two women were constantly vying to outdo one another. Portraits were commissioned, tournaments, ballets and masques staged, jewelry bought, the latest fashions avidly taken up and increasingly exotic riches sought for their cabinets of curiosities. In 1632, Amalia had a portrait painted by Rembrandt. However, the work was probably not flattering enough; she commissioned no further portraits by Rembrandt. Instead, she had herself portrayed by Gerrit van Honthorst in the exact same pose, and wearing the exact same fluttering scarf and pearl necklace, as Elizabeth, her former mistress.
Their behaviour was far from frivolous, however, as this assertion of courtly identity was necessary to strengthen their political status. A conspicuous display of riches was a means of confirming their identity and status. Their rivalry was not just personal, it was dynastic. Both Elizabeth and Amalia were rulers as well as women; they were astute political actors at a time of political upheaval. Friedrich von Dohna, governor of the principality of Orange, even went so far as to comment that neither Dutch government officials nor foreign ministers dared to discuss anything with Frederick Henry without first having consulted Amalia.
Both Elizabeth and Amalia were powerful, respected women who not only advised their husbands, but also safeguarded their legacies when they became widows, doing their utmost to protect their dynasties. Beside their political ambitions, they made an enormous contribution to Dutch culture. They commissioned many artists to enhance and embellish their royal status with portraits and other works of art, and the style of portraiture and theatrical entertainment changed dramatically under their influence. Their rivalry enriched the Dutch Republic culturally beyond estimation.
(13 November 2014 / MLH)