Nicolaas van der Waay’s Orphan Girls and Jane Eyre

4 Jan

Nicolaas van der Waay, Orphan girls from the Burgerweeshuis, Amsterdam, c. 1900, Black and red chalk and pencil on paper

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century portraits of orphan girls from Amsterdam are the most interesting and unique works of Nicolaas van der Waay’s oeuvre. He painted other things as well but these orphan girls, recognisable by their wistful faces and matching uniforms in traditional Amsterdam colours; black, red and white, are really interesting. This drawing of the orphan girl made in black and red chalk was just a sketch for other paintings of the same motif that van der Waay painted, but I prefer this drawing to other paintings because it seems so immediate and alive. The two colours of the chalk, plus the white paper, go perfectly well with the colours of the girls’ attire, which is a fortunate coincidence. I like how the girls are sketched in their everyday activities; two are chatting, one is holding a bucket of water, one is wistfully staring in the distance, perhaps daydreaming of a better life. These drawings and paintings reminded me of Jane Eyre’s life at the Lowood Institution and the uniform she had to wear there. Jane was an orphan but that school wasn’t an orphanage, but still the cold, unloving atmosphere, the strictness and deprivation of the school isn’t so unlike that of an orphanage. Here is a passage from chapter five where Jane gives her first impressions of the school and she also describes how the girls there are dressed:

Ranged on benches down the sides of the room, the eighty girls sat motionless and erect; a quaint assemblage they appeared, all with plain locks combed from their faces, not a curl visible; in brown dresses, made high and surrounded by a narrow tucker about the throat, with little pockets of holland (shaped something like a Highlander’s purse) tied in front of their frocks, and destined to serve the purpose of a work- bag: all, too, wearing woollen stockings and country-made shoes, fastened with brass buckles. Above twenty of those clad in this costume were full-grown girls, or rather young women; it suited them ill, and gave an air of oddity even to the prettiest.

Jane Eyre (2011)

When I gaze at these paintings I am not just thinking of their aesthetic beauty but also of the conditions in which these girls lived which, I am pretty sure, weren’t the greatest. Jane Eyre, in chapter 6, also mentions the freezing winter cold, which is very familiar to me in these dreary January days, and the bad conditions in general:

The next day commenced as before, getting up and dressing by rushlight; but this morning we were obliged to dispense with the ceremony of washing; the water in the pitchers was frozen. A change had taken place in the weather the preceding evening, and a keen north-east wind, whistling through the crevices of our bedroom windows all night long, had made us shiver in our beds, and turned the contents of the ewers to ice. Before the long hour and a half of prayers and Bible-reading was over, I felt ready to perish with cold. Breakfast-time came at last, and this morning the porridge was not burnt; the quality was eatable, the quantity small. How small my portion seemed! I wished it had been doubled.

Nicolaas van der Waay, Amsterdam Orphan Girl, c. 1890

Nicolaas van der Waay, Les Orphelines d’Amsterdam, 1900

3 Responses to “Nicolaas van der Waay’s Orphan Girls and Jane Eyre”

  1. elisabethm 6th Jan 2021 at 6:18 am #

    Lovely post, as always! The orphanage still exists, you can even visit it; it is now the Amsterdam Museum. It’s a beautiful old piece of Amsterdam.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 6th Jan 2021 at 6:19 pm #

      Thank you! Oh I didn’t know that! It’s great when such interesting historical places can be preserved and have a good purpose such as museum.

      Liked by 1 person

      • elisabethm 7th Jan 2021 at 8:00 am #

        The courtyard is public, there you can still see the wooden lockers that the girls used to store their personal possessions. It’s one of my favourite places in Amsterdam, a quiet and beautiful place right in the centre.

        Liked by 1 person

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