Rijksmuseum reunites portrait glasses of famed author duo

The Rijksmuseum has acquired an 18th century glass goblet engraved with the portrait of one of the Netherlands most important writers, Betje Wolff. It is a matched set with a goblet bearing the portrait of Aagje Denken, her partner in writing and in life, which has been in the collection of the Rijksmuseum since 1951. Its pair was acquired from a private collection in Germany and now the two have been reunited on display.

Elisabeth Wolff-Bekker (1738–1804) and Agatha Deken (1741–1804) co-wrote The History of Miss Sara Burgerhart, the first novel written in the Dutch language. The two, already published authors, first met on October 13th, 1776, and moved in together in 1777 after the death of Betje Wolff’s husband Adriaan. They wrote together collaboratively and in 1782 published Sara Burgerhart which was an instant success. It was written in the epistolary style (as letters from the characters to each other), a genre that had vaulted to prominence a few decades earlier with the success of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. The style lends itself to realism and Wolff and Deken embraced the approach, drawing heavily on their own childhood experiences.

Politically active in the Patriot movement challenging the rule of William V of Orange as stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, the pair were were forced to flee The Hague in 1788 in the wake of the Prussian invasion of Holland to suppress the Patriot cause and restore the power of Orange. Wolff and Deken settled in Trévoux, Burgundy, and lived there for 10 years. They returned in 1797 in much reduced circumstances. The would live together in The Hague until the end of their days. Betje Wolff died on November 5th, 1804. Aagje Deken died nine days later on November 14th.

Their portrait glasses were the work of David Wolff (no relation to Betje), a glass engraver who specialized in portraits on glasses. He was the premier engraver of the 18th century Netherlands, taking the old technique of diamond-point engraving to new heights. He used the stippling engraving technique which tapped the diamond point into the glass making a dot rather than the scratching technique used to cut images and letters in traditional diamond engraving. The result is a pointillistic rendering of light and shadow via different densities of dots.

Interestingly given this history, David Wolff’s stipple-engraved subjects were usually men. The only other woman known to have received his treatment was Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia, wife of Prince William V of Orange and sister of King Frederick William II of Prussia who invaded the Netherlands in response to Patriot slights against his sister. A double portrait of them attributed to David Wolff is in the Rijksmuseum, and he also made individual portraits of the Prince and Princess on wineglasses, see these in the Corning Museum of Glass, for example.

The stipple engraving is closely linked to the political struggle between patriots and Orangists at the end of the 18th century. Both sides used glasses with dotted portraits of their male heroes to toast. Dotted formal portraits of women are rare, with the exception of Wilhelmina van Prussia (1751-1820), the wife of stadtholder Willem V. Several glasses are known of the princess, only one of the burgher women Wolff and Deken. The Rijksmuseum is currently investigating whether other glass-dotted women’s portraits have also been preserved or described. It is possible that Wolff and Deken’s political convictions and their affiliation with the patriots were the reason for having these glasses made.

The glasses have now gone on display alongside the print model for the portraits. It was made by printmaker Antoine Alexandre Joseph Cardon after an original drawing by W. Neering for the frontispiece of a 1784 book of Wolff and Deken stories.

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