Arts & Culture

The True Story Behind the Cabinet House in The Miniaturist

Petronella Oortman was a real person in 17th-century Amsterdam.
IMAGE LAURENCE CENDROWICZ / COURTESY OF PBS
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In the first episode of The Miniaturist, a miniseries based on Jessie Burton's novel of the same name, 17th-century Dutch merchant Johannes Brandt gives his new bride Petronella Oortman an exact replica of her new home as a wedding gift. From there, the plot centers around Nella and this cabinet house, which she furnishes in detail with gifts from the miniaturist, an elusive, and seemingly omniscient, craftswoman.

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Burton's characters, and their television adaptation are fiction, but Petronella Oortman, Johannes Brandt, and the doll house were all very much real. The author first encountered Petronella's real cabinet house while in Amsterdam on vacation in October of 2009. She was there on a three-day trip from London, and visited the Rijksmuseum, where she first came across the cabinet.


Petronella Oortman's dollhouse at the Rijksmuseum.

"I just thought what a stunning, stunning piece of craftsmanship for a start, and it really drew me in. It’s a very big object, it’s quite aesthetically pleasing. It’s very intimate, but it’s also quite imposing," she tells Town & Country.

Burton began to contemplate what kind of person would possess such a piece. "When I learned that the owner, who was also called Nella, started decorating the house in identical miniature to her real home and spent the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars on it, I just thought that’s such an interesting psychology. Why did she do that? Why did she make all these beds she couldn’t sleep in and food she couldn’t eat?"

Burton began plotting her novel from there, but made some changes in the transfer from fact to fiction. "Although Petronella was a real person, there is little of her biographical life in the novel, except for her cabinet house," the author told me. "I have made her younger than her husband, a country girl, a fictional creation."

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A historian told Burton that the original Nella spent the rough equivalent of 2 million euro on the house, and worked on it for years.

"[Seeing the doll house] really started in my imagination this concept of the domestic world, of secrets and interiors and how much control we have over our own lives and our fates," Burton says.

"And the backdrop of Amsterdam at that time was a perfect setting because it was such a wealthy city, but it was a city that was very nervous about its wealth. The cabinet house is a real thing as much as it’s a symbol of the society and of the city of Amsterdam itself."

The Miniaturist airs Sunday nights on Masterpiece PBS at 9 p.m. eastern, 8 p.m. central. The original doll house was made by a cabinetmaker in France, and is currently on display in room 2.20 of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. See a few more photos of the real house below:


A detail of the doll house.


One of the rooms in Petronella’s house.


A museum visitor takes a closer look at the doll house.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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Caroline Hallemann
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