The history of the canal house | Museum of Bags Amsterdam

A ‘House’ full of stories on the Herengracht

The Museum of Bags is housed in a special building that is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Canal Belt.

A National Monument

This national monument has retained various authentic details from the 17th century. The staircase in particular appeals to the imagination, and in the authentic Period Rooms guests can imagine themselves in the Golden Age while enjoying an elegant lunch or high tea.

Since opening its doors on the Herengracht in 2007, the museum attracts around 70,000 visitors from home and abroad a year with its world-famous collection.

A tour through the building astonishes visitors at every turn: each bag has its own story. Every piece provides information about developments in fashion, design, craftsmanship, materials, habits and customs throughout history.

Thanks to its history and various remarkable residents, including Jeltje de Bosch Kemper, the beautiful canal house itself also has an impressive story to tell.

Golden Age

Amsterdam grew rapidly in the 17th century. The city quickly became prosperous and the number of residents increased. Canals were dug for the affluent elite, and many ‘city palaces’ were erected for rich merchants, bankers and city officials. The Herengracht and Keizersgracht were the most attractive areas to live: close to the centre and with large plots of land.

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Cornelis de Graeff

Cornelis de Graeff (1599-1664) was an administrator of the Dutch East India Company (‘VOC’), ten-time mayor of Amsterdam, art collector and also guardian of regent William III of Orange. He lived with his wife Catharina Hooft and their sons Pieter and Jacob at the Herengracht.

Shortly before his death in 1664, Cornelis bought two adjacent plots on the same canal for 2,520 guilders each. A unique agreement was signed between De Graeff and the other purchasers in which they promised to build their new houses ‘to a single height, a single faciat (façade) and a single gable’. This led to the creation of a uniform row of houses. It is the only example of this throughout the entire canal belt.

Between 1619 and 1620, Frans Hals painted the young, wealthy Catharina Hooft with her nurse. A copy of ‘De Min’ (‘The Wet Nurse’) can still be seen in the museum. It was given on loan by Jonkheer Cornelis de Graeff, a descendant of the original inhabitants.

The Construction of the Double Canal House

Pieter de Graeff (1638-1707), the oldest son of Cornelis de Graeff, inherited the plots after the death of his father in 1664. He was responsible for the construction and interior of the double canal house in which the Museum of Bags lives today. Just like his father, Pieter became an administrator for the VOC and became rich through inheritance and trade with the East Indies. He was one of the 250th richest men of the Golden Age.

Ceiling in the Museum of bags and Purses

Piano Nobile


The first stone of the stately home was laid in April 1665. A year later, Pieter de Graeff, his wife Jacoba Bicker, and their family moved into the home.

The entrance to the building was originally on the first floor, the ‘piano nobile’. People would enter the monumental central hall via an external staircase. Guests were received in the richly decorated chambers (now the period rooms) on either side. In 1868 architect Isaac Gosschalk installed a new entrance on the ground floor, and the monumental staircase and first floor entrance disappeared.

Small period room

The diaries of Pieter de Graeff and Jacoba Bicker show that the couple made use of specialised craftsmen for both the construction and interior decoration.
De Graeff commissioned ceiling paintings for the smaller chambers.

Presumably in the interests of cost-saving, he contracted an unknown artist, Paulus de Fouchier. In the middle of the ceiling, he painted Amsterdam as a triumphant woman, flanked by personifications of wisdom and reason. Around Amsterdam the painter depicted the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa and America as women. Australia had not yet been discovered by the West. Between 1684 and 1865, De Fouchier also provided the stairwell with a three-part ceiling painting of
cherubs.

At the beginning of the 18th century, a richly decorated marble mantelpiece was installed in the smaller period room. The mantle has a mirror in a gilded wooden frame and the chimney-piece is decorated with a painting of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine.

Large period room

In 1741 Gerrit de Graeff asked the Amsterdam painter Louis Fabritius Dubourg, a student of Gerard de Lairesse, to paint the ceiling and chimney-piece in the large period room.

The result is an allegory of Peace that leads to abundance and the promotion of the arts and science. The four corner-pieces depict Music, Abundance, the Arts and Sciences, and Fame. Fabritius Dubourg painted the chimney-piece with an allegorical representation of Peace, Wisdom and Time.

Jeltje de Bosch Kemper

A later notable resident of the house is Jeltje de Bosch Kemper (1836-1916). She fought to improve the economic and legal position of women.

In 1852, her father Jonkheer Jeronimo de Bosch Kemper moved the family into the house on the Herengracht. In her diaries, Jeltje wrote about the deadly dullness of her life. An intelligent, socially involved woman, she was not allowed to study or work because of her position. Bored at home, she began to take an interest in her father’s work in the field of law and politics. She sat on various boards to promote the economic position of women in society and wrote blazing articles defending women’s right to paid work. Together with like-minded sympathisers, Jeltje founded the ‘Amsterdamse Huishoudschool’, a school to train women in housework, in 1891.

Hidden jewel

In 2007 the building at the Herengracht was restored and converted to fit the requirements of a professional museum. Various unique elements from previous centuries were restored.

The ‘contemplation garden’ was also created in a historic style. It is an oasis of peace and quiet located right in the heart of the capital. In the summer in particular it is a popular place for guests to take a moment to relax.

Thanks to Monumentaal, who published this article in their 2019 June issue.

What other people say

I would recommend a stopover for any fan of purses!
"Stunning"
One woman's acquiring a handbag led to a huge collection. Margaret Thatcher, Liz Taylor and Hillary Clinton's bags are all here.
"Loved this museum!"
Really gorgeous handbags with explanations. Fab restaurant there too and a tea shop.
"Spectacular place"

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