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Exhibition texts Vrouw Maria

Vrouw Maria, instruction

Start with the wall straight ahead to the left. Then move counterclockwise around the room.

The map shows the location of the remains, and the box contains short facts about it.

Facts about the find

FIND: The Dutch merchant ship Vrouw Maria.

PERIOD: October 1771, the Enlightenment.

LOCATION: South of Nagu, Finnish archipelago.

EVENT: The ship ran aground and sank after a few days. Everyone on board survived, but many precious goods were lost.

A shipload of luxury

Amsterdam was an 18th century hub for world trade. Dutch merchant vessels shipped goods back and forth to all corners of the world, including the countries around the Baltic Sea. One such ship was the Vrouw Maria.

Europe’s houses of royalty and aristocrats had an extensive network of contacts, where ideas about what was modern and necessary were in constant circulation. Merchant ships passed on this culture of the nobility, carrying valuable goods like precious clothing, furniture and works of art in their holds.

In the autumn of 1771, the Vrouw Maria is on her way to Saint Petersburg. The ship’s cargo included objects of art and exclusive wares that Catherine the Great and her court have ordered. But during a storm, the ship runs aground in the Finnish archipelago.

The Vrouw Maria's hold

Sketch based on photographs and footage from the wreckage. Archaeologists found well-packaged glass discs, clay pipes, textiles and colour pigments. Information from the salvage made while the ship was sinking mentions flower bulbs, seeds, snuff and lead boxes with coffee beans.

Lost paintings, interactive station

On the touchscreen in the podium you can choose among sketches and copies. The one you select is displayed and presented on the wall.

Introductory text

Catherine the Great had several works of art bought at an auction in Amsterdam in 1771. We know that a few of these works sank with Vrouw Maria. Other works purchased by agents for members of the Russian elite have also been missing since the time the ship sank. They, too, probably ended up on the seabed.

Many of the works purchased were famous in the 18th century, and had been copied by other artists. Thanks to these copies, the sketches, and the descriptions from the auction catalogue, we know what some of them looked like.

Kitchen maid holding a hare, top row left

Sketch in pencil, in the margin of a copy of the auction catalog from 1771. Through an open window, a maid is seen holding a hare in her hand that she appears to be about to debowel. In front of the window, a rooster hangs from a tree.

Original by Gabriel Metzu, 1629-1667. 

Allegory of art education, top row right

Oil on canvas and panel, copy by Joseph Laquy, 1738-1798. Triptych. In the middle, an interior of a young woman sitting at a table nursing a baby. The background shows a surgeon’s shop where a farmer is having a tooth removed. The painting was covered with doors with paintings on the inside. An evening school on one side and a man sharpening quill in candle light on the other.

Original by Gerard Dou, 1613-1675.

Landscape with cattle herding, bottom row left

Drawing in black and red chalk, pen and heightening white, copy by Adrian van de Velde, 1636-1672. This drawing, known as Landscape with cattle driver and herd of bulls, depicts a shepherd herding oxen along a road. In the foreground a dog drinks from a puddle, and a village can be seen from a far, all in bright sunshine.

Original by Paulus Potter, 1625-1654. 

Kitchen interior with spiral staircase, bottom row middle

Gouache and ink drawing on paper, copy by Joseph Laquy, 1738-1798. A room with a spiral staircase, where a man comes down the stairs to surprise his servant and maid who are being friendly in the cellar. He is holding a finger to his lips while gripping the railing with his other hand to not make any noise.

Original by Isaac Koedijck, 1617-1668.

A man sits at a table, bottom row right

Outline sketch in pencil, in the margin of a copy of the auction catalog from 1771. An interior of a man sitting in front of a table that is covered by a carpet. On the table are books and prints, and a map of Europe hangs on the wall behind it.

Original av Adriaen van Ostade, 1610-1685.

An enlightened regent. Left of interactive station.

Catherine the Great was inspired by Enlightenment ideas and corresponded extensively with several influential philosophers and cultural figures. She wanted Russia to be able to match its neighbours, not only in terms of military might but politically, intellectually and culturally. The Russian aristocracy was to have access to science, literature, music and art.

Catherine founded the Hermitage Art Museum in Saint Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. She invited poets, artists and musicians from all over the enlightened world to Russia. The empress Catherine was also an ambitious art collector, and the Vrouw Maria’s cargo contained paintings and objects she had ordered.

The Hermitage

The Hermitage of Saint Petersburg was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great. Originally, the collection consisted of just over 250 works of art. It grew rapidly and today the Hermitage is one of the world’s biggest art museums, with nearly three million objects.

In wall exhibit

Textile fragments

The textile fragments were analysed by researchers and turned out to be high-quality wool. The textiles were dyed using carmine. The dye, which is made from dried and crushed insects, probably derives from Mexico.

Glass discs

The discs were packed in a box with compartments. We don’t know what they were used for. They might have been intended for lamps, or perhaps for medallions with miniature paintings and silhouettes, a popular gift among the upper classes.

Clay pipes

Smoking a pipe was popular in the 18th century. The upper classes were happy to acquire these long and fragile pipes. The clay pipes in the Vrouw Maria’s cargo were made in Gouda, Holland, and bundled like bouquets before being shipped.


A plant dye known for its ability to produce permanent colour and permeate different materials. The best indigo came from the East India indigo bush and was very expensive and sought after. The Vrouw Maria was loaded with 1,600 kilos (3,527 pounds) of indigo.

The whole world in one ship, text and map

The map shows where in the world different commodities originated.

Much of the Vrouw Maria’s cargo was bought on behalf of the Russian court. The cargo sheds light on the European consumption of art and luxury goods of the time as well as on colonialism and world trade.

In the hold, exquisite items were found. There were dyestuffs from plants like indigo, brazilwood and dyer’s madder, ornaments of ivory, flower bulbs and fashionable goods like tobacco, coffee and tea. The raw materials often came from plantations in colonies around the world. Slaves and the slave trade were the foundation for the huge profits of plantations and European houses of commerce, and for luxury consumption by the European aristocracy.

Table with coffee

Coffee at auction

Although the salvaged coffee was water damaged, it was sold at auction. The auction was announced in the German speaking newspaper St. Petersburgische Zeitung. The ad states that the coffee up for sale comes from a wrecked ship. That ship was the Vrouw Maria.

Coffe beans fron the wreck

A sample has shown that these are Arabica beans. Catherine the Great started her day with coffee – very trendy, and very expensive. Some of the coffee on board the Vrouw Maria could be salvaged before the sinking, but much remained.


Opportunity to smell coffee beans.

Salvage what can be salvaged. Right of table with coffee.

It took several days before the Vrouw Maria sank after running aground in the Finnish archipelago. The crew managed to manoeuvre the ship and anchor among the skerries, despite the strong surging winds. The pumps were manned and the sailors worked frantically to save the ship.

The next day, the locals came to help. The pumping continued but the leak was large, and the water was a few metres high in the hold. With forces mobilised, parts of the cargo could still be salvaged before the ship sank. Salvaged goods were often sold at auction, but many of these goods belonged to the Russian elite. Most of the goods were thus sent directly to Russia.

Salvaged painting

Some of the cargo was salvaged in connection with the sinking. The list of what was salvaged includes six paintings. But this one, the Mint Tower Viewed from Singel, painted by Jan Ten Compe in 1751, is the only one that the researchers have identified and found. The painting is today at the Amsterdam Museum.

The table by the wall, paintings and lists

Prokofi Akinfievich Demidov

Financier and contemporary of Catherine the Great. He was extremely wealthy and donated large sums of money to everything from orphanages to scientific institutes and opera houses. He was also keenly interested in botany.

Salvaged cargo

On the list of salvaged items are seeds and flower bulbs, including two boxes ordered by the botany enthusiast Demidov. Salvaged goods were often sold at auction, but in the Vrouw Maria’s case most of the goods were shipped directly to Russia.

Nikita Ivanovich Panin

Count, foreign minister and confidant of the empress Catherine. After the Vrouw Maria had sunk, Panin was quite keen to locate the ship and salvage the goods on board. But the search was in vain. It was not until 1999 that the wreck was found.

Cargo list

The Danish customs office documented all duty-paid goods. But goods on their way to royal houses and nobles were duty-free, so they do not appear on the lists. Instead, other historical sources and archaeological finds tell us about the route of luxury goods to Saint Petersburg.

The Vrouw Maria’s last journey

After running aground, the Vrouw Maria was leaking heavily. Its pumps were inadequate and also clogged by coffee beans swirling around in the water. After five days of fruitless efforts to save the ship, the Vrouw Maria sank with most of its cargo still on board. Several people tried to recover the wreckage, but no one succeeded. In the end, it was forgotten.

In the 1970s, a researcher began to dig up the story of the ship and its precious cargo. Archival materials showed that several paintings by Dutch masters were on board. The wreck gained a reputation as a treasure ship and so the search continued – unsuccessfully. Only in 1999 was the Vrouw Maria wreck discovered.


The wreck filmed with a R O V, remotely operated underwater vehicle. The film contains no sound.

To salvage or not to salvage?

From time to time, discussions flare up about retrieving the Vrouw Maria. But perhaps it is still better to protect the shipwreck site as a whole, and continue to explore the remarkable history of Vrouw Maria on site.

A wreck with hull intact

The wreck is about 26 metres (85 ft.) long and 7 metres (23 ft.) wide. It rests on an even keel in water 41 metres (134.5 ft.) deep and is largely intact. Unfortunately, the paintings left on board are believed to be destroyed, since water has leaked into the packages.


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Page last updated: 2021-09-07