Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


NICOLAAS VAN DER WAAY (Amsterdam 1855 – Amsterdam 1936)

An Amsterdam Orphan Girl Sewing

signed N.V.D. Waay. in the lower right

watercolor laid down on cardboard

35 x 23 ¾ inches           (890 x 602 mm.)


Private Collection, New York, until 2015



Berlin, Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung, May 11-September 27, 1914, no. 466 (as Nähendes Waisenmädchen)


Nicolaas van der Waay received his initial training from the portrait painter Louis Koopman, whose daughter he would later marry. At the age of sixteen he enrolled at the National Academy and was a student of August Allebé, who stressed the importance of studying the old masters. Upon graduation in 1876 he shared a studio with Jan Wijsmuller. In 1883 he was awarded a government grant that allowed him to go to Italy and copy the Italian masters. When Van der Waay returned to Amsterdam, he joined the staff of the National Academy where he was appointed a full professor in 1891. He remained at the Academy until 1927 and had numerous famous students, including, Lizzy Ansingh, Agnieta Cornelia Gijswijt, Willem Maris, Paul Rink, Jan Sluijters, Anton Smeerdijk, Jan Zoetelief Tromp, and Wilm Wouters. In 1898 he was given the prestigious commission of painting the inauguration of Queen Wilhemina, now in Het Loo Palace, Apeldoorn. His subject matter ranged among portraiture, allegory, historical scenes, nudes, genre, cityscapes and still lifes, executed in a style that began as highly realistic but around the turn of the century, under the influence of Isaac Israels, transitioned into a synthesis of Realism and Impressionism. He was a member of Arti et Amicitiae and Vereeniging Sint Lukas. He was a founding member of the art association M.(ichel) A.(ngelo) B.(uonarotti) that was devoted to the enjoyment of art by professionals and amateurs alike.[1]

A beautiful young girl dressed as an orphan of the Amsterdam Municipal Orphanage is serenely seated in a sunlit interior. While engaged in embroidering linen, her expression is one of contemplation which is reflected in the mirror on the wall. By her side on top of a plain wooden table are scissors, white thread, a cup and saucer as well as an open book. On the wall are watercolors over a wainscoting of blue and white tiles. The timeless quality of the work is immediately evocative of the Dutch masters of the Golden Age. Carole Denninger, the expert on the painter, dates the execution of An Amsterdam Orphan Girl Sewing to circa 1890. The sitter in this work was particularly lovely and posed for the painter numerous times.[2] She is also the model for his painting in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, called Amsterdam Orphan Girl ( In our composition Van der Waay depicted her seated in a corner of his studio that he had set up for these works.[3] Another version, executed in chalk, of almost the same size and subject, is in the Amsterdam Museum ( Fittingly the museum has fifty-five works by Van der Waay, nineteen of which are orphan subjects, as they occupy the former site of the Burgerweeshuis.

The Amsterdam Municipal Orphanage, known as the Burgerweeshuis, was established in 1520 and in 1581 moved to a building located between the Kalverstraat, the Begijnhof, and the Keizergracht. The Burgerweeshuis was regarded with great civic pride. Only children whose parents had been middle-class were allowed admittance into the orphanage. Should tragedy strike, the institution was felt to be a reward for the offspring of those who had maintained the social contract of good citizenship in Amsterdam. The poor were sent to the Aalmoezeniersweeshuis.[4] Both boys and girls of the Burgerweeshuis were dressed in vertically divided red and black uniforms that reflected the colors of the flag of Amsterdam.[5] Their overall care was on par if not above the average middle-class child. They received regular medical attention, were well fed, and had adequate sleeping quarters.[6] Most importantly, the Burgerweeshuis was concerned with their future, from the age of ten training began in a variety of skills. Until the age of sixteen, girls were put in the orphanage workshop and given sewing or knitting duties. All of the clothing and linens needed in the institution came from the workshop. From sixteen until eighteen, girls left the workshop to be employed in a section of the orphanage where they cleaned, prepared meals, or cared for young or sick children. What they did not do were any tasks in the boys’ quarters, as the sexes were kept strictly segregated. Hired maids cleaned the male dorms. At eighteen the girls returned to the workshop to teach the new trainees and refine their skills. Upon graduation at twenty, their highly disciplined training made them sought-after workers. The same initial practices and governing rules of the institution held throughout the nineteenth century.[7]

Van der Waay’s scenes depicting the girls of the Burgerweeshuis proved wildly popular. Executed in a variety of mediums, they are additionally viewed in the kitchen, classroom, or courtyard of the Amsterdam Municipal Orphanage.[8] When Drs. Baars mounted his 1999 Nicolaas van der Waay exhibition, he wrote of being particularly struck by the artist’s “attention to form, color and composition” in his series of orphan girls, and how they compelled one to think of the American and English Realist movement, in particular the works of James Abbott McNeill Whistler.[9] The girls of the orphanage were also painted and sketched over a five-year period by the German artist Max Liebermann, who viewed the Burgerweeshuis as the embodiment of social reform.[10] Van der Waay, a lifelong Amsterdammer, must have shared the sentiment as well as feeling a deep-seated pride in its sustained success. The orphanage was considered a showcase. Travel guides, like the Baedeker, advised a visit to the girls of the Burgerweeshuis, open to the public on Sundays and holidays.[11] One of Van der Waay’s most famous works is Orphanage Girls Going to Church in the Amsterdam Museum ( The exquisiteness of Van der Waay’s execution underlines the profoundness of the series’ inherent meaning.

Having been passed through generations of a New York family, and been exhibited only once in Berlin over one hundred years ago, the freshness of Van der Waay’s An Amsterdam Orphan Girl Sewing marks the reemergence of a jewel.

We are very grateful to Norbert Middelkoop of the Amsterdam Museum, and Carole Denninger for their assistance in the writing of this entry.

Nicolaas van der Waay,&nbsp; Zittend weesmeisje met naaiwerk (Sitting orphan girl with sewing) , chalk on paper, 34 1/5 x 22 7/10 inches (86.9 x 57.6 cm.), Collection of the Amsterdam Museum, Courtesy of the Amsterdam Museum, bruikleen van Stichting Spirit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Nicolaas van der Waay, Zittend weesmeisje met naaiwerk (Sitting orphan girl with sewing), chalk on paper, 34 1/5 x 22 7/10 inches (86.9 x 57.6 cm.), Collection of the Amsterdam Museum, Courtesy of the Amsterdam Museum, bruikleen van Stichting Spirit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

[1] Biographical information taken from Pieter A. Scheen, “Nicolaas van der Waay” in Lexikon Nederlandse Beeldende Kunstenaars 1750-1880, Uitgeverij Pieter A. Scheen BV,’s-Gravenhage, 1981, p. 257; Wiepke Loos, “Nicolaas van der Waay” in Breitner and His Age, Paintings from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam 1880-1900, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1995, p. 78; Drs. W.L. Baars, Nicolaas van der Waay, Christie’s, Amsterdam, 1999, unpaginated; “Nicolaas Van der Waay” on (RKD Explore) website, and written communication from Carole Denninger, dated October 29, 2015.

[2] Written communication with Norbert Middelkoop of the Amsterdam Museum, Amsterdam dated, September 22, 2015.

[3]  Carole Denninger, op. cit..

[4] Anne E.C. McCants, Civic Charity in the Golden Age, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1997, pp. 25, 28, 34.

[5] Derek Phillips, Well-Being in Amsterdam’s Golden Age, Pallas Publication, Amsterdam, 2008, p 176.

[6] Hanna van Solinge, Evelien Walhout, and Frans van Poppel, “Determinants of Institutionalization of Orphans in the Nineteenth-Century Dutch Town” in Continuity and Change, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 161-162.

[7] Anne E. C. McCants, op. cit., pp. 25, 84; and Hanna van Solinge, op. cit., p. 162.

[8] Wiepke Loos, op. cit., p. 78.

[9] Drs. W.L. Baars, op. cit., unpaginated.

[10] Dr. Marion Deshmukh, Max Liebermann: Modern Art and Modern Germany, Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, VT., 2015, pp 71, 73-74.

[11] Ibid, p. 71.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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