‘The Miniaturist’ Cabinet House Is Real, And So Is Nella Oortman

The 'Masterpiece Theater' series is based on a 17th century woman and her dollhouse.

A man takes a closer look of the Dollhouse of Petronella Oortman
Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images

The 'Masterpiece Theater' series is based on a 17th century woman and her dollhouse.

While The Miniaturist on Masterpiece Theatre is based on a work of fiction, the novel, The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton, is actually based on a woman who lived in the 17th century named Petronella Oortman. Her cabinet house, a dollhouse which was a replica of her home with all of its luxury furnishings, was given to her by her husband as a wedding gift.

The miniseries now on PBS is the story of a young woman named Petronella (Nella) Oortman, who is the young wife of a wealthy Dutch merchant named Johannes Brandt. Brandt gives Nella the cabinet house as a wedding gift and gives her a budget with which to decorate it to her liking. She starts getting gifts from a miniaturist who seems to be all-knowing, slowly revealing the secrets of the family.

Town & Country says that the story is fiction from Burton’s imagination, but the author got her inspiration when she saw the real Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in a museum in Amsterdam. Burton was on vacation in 2009 when she visited the Rijksmuseum and saw the dollhouse, which belonged to Oortman, who was married to a man named Brandt.

The detail that went into the dollhouse stayed with Burton.

“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 says she couldn’t help wondering what kind of woman would have owned such a large piece of art.

“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 says that the story, which is actually quite dark, has little to do with the real Petronella Oortman beyond the family name and the particulars of the dollhouse.

But the author did want to know more about the cabinet house and its furnishings and what would have gone into having the pieces made to match the actual Brandt home. A historian told Burton that Nella would have spent the equivalent of 2 million euro on the house.

“[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.”