Gisèle d’Ailly van Waterschoot van der Gracht

Rachel/November 18, 2012

Gisèle d’Ailly van Waterschoot van der Gracht, or Gisèle Waterschoot of the Canal, is a 100 year old artist and publisher we recently saw featured at Freunde von Freunden, and were completely mesmerized. When we dug a little deeper, we found that Gisèle may just be one of the coolest women to ever live. Her life story reads so much like a novel that’s hard to believe she’s real, and even her apartment, Herengracht 401, has a history as intriguing as her own.

Having grown up all over the world – the ‘Wild West’ of the United States, an Austrian castle, Amsterdam, Paris and Limberg, and time spent on the Greek Isle of Paros – her early childhood memories include playing with children from the Ponca Indian tribes in Tulsa in the 1910s, and of a deep connection with the canals of Amsterdam that her family lived on. She made painted glass windows for churches, ships, and monasteries, studied at the Paris École des Beaux d’Arts, and has recently been knighted by the mayor of Amsterdam.

One of her most remarkable life moments belongs to the the 1940s, when she opened her Amsterdam apartment home to fleeing Jewish Germans, providing shelter to displaced youths including poet Wolfgang Frommel and his inner circle. It became a close-knit family of scholars, artists, and intellectuals of all sorts, surviving the war as friends, engaged with literature and poetry. She says of the time, “There are different kinds of freedom: spiritual and physical freedom. The greater part of Europe was engaged in war, but we were here concerned with literature. That was very positive to be busy and not just to wait for the freedom to come.”

The group of survivors, with Gisèle and Frommel as their fearless leaders, went on to form a literary group named for Castrum Peregrini, of which they also called their safe house. From the early 1950s, the group published magazines and other projects, and formed the Foundation Castrum Peregrini, centered around the intellectual and artistic exploration and expression of friendship, freedom, and culture.

Gisèle went on to purchase the entirety of the building at Herengracht 401 and subsequently donate it to the foundation she founded. For decades, it served as home and literary powerhouse to herself, Frommel, and others. The foundation is still open for intellectuals, artists, politicians, and others, and Gisèle is still very much involved. On the ground floor lies a large hall for lectures, exhibitions and discussions, and on the huge top attic level, Gisèle d’Ailly van Waterschoot van der Gracht still lives on her canal, among enormous windows and millions of memories, things collected from travels, her paintings, prints and photographs, sculptures and books lining the interior.

Photos of Gisèle d’Ailly van Waterschoot van der Gracht in her home via Freunde von Freunden.


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