The MFA’s Dutch Masters: Artistic distinctions then and now

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One way to explain the vision of the Museum of Fine Arts’ latest exhibit, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, is to point to the intellectual feat required to organize so complex a collection. Indeed, it is an impressive tribute to the artistic dexterity of the Dutch Masters. Another way to explain the collection is to emphasize its timeless message.

Matthew Teitelbaum, Director of Boston’s MFA since Aug. 3, 2015, introduces Dr. Ronni Baer as the energetic visionary who inspired this collection by saying, “this exhibit is a real feather in her Curatorial cap.” Dr. Baer, a specialist in 17th-centruy Dutch and Flemish art, joined the MFA as Senior Curator of paintings in the Art of Europe department in 2000. Five years ago, she began imagining an exhibit contrasting class distinctions. She admits to have surprised herself by how magnificently her efforts and those of her staff took shape in this landmark exhibition dedicated to the examination of social strata in Holland and The Netherlands of the 16th century.

Artistic creativity flourished in the Dutch Republic during the 17th century alongside religious reform. Bustling open markets thrived, selling portrait paintings and genre scenes as well as domestic embellishments to Dutch society of all social levels. Nobility, aspiring middle-class men, and the working urban poor sought trappings to affirm their prominence, enhance their sense of social standing, or add a sense of grace to their lives. Exquisite portraiture was often placed prominently at a home’s entrance, clearly boasting about one’s rank or occupation. Landscapes were typically purchased by the less affluent to adorn their more humble dwellings.

Sometimes, inexpensive and readily reproducible motifs of beggars were composed and widely distributed to remind Dutch reformed citizens of the moral desirability and obligation to care for the needy and infirm. The same tableaux underscored the cities’ need to shun lazy charlatans. As cities such as Amsterdam and The Hague became highly urbanized, observance of class distinctions in the Netherlands became more conspicuous. The paintings indicate that classes mingled in common court-yards for commerce, but seldom interacted socially. The region had become a global power and a hub of culture in the 1600s.

Before crossing the threshold into the galleries of “Distinctions,” the MFA invites guests to write a complimentary post card with an old fashioned feather quill. Visitors are further encouraged to tweet a “selfie” in front of a wall-sized electronic recreation of a 1665 painting by Ochtervelt of Street Musicians at the Door. The painting, on loan from the St. Louis Art Museum, highlights cultural clashes of the time. Both the original and updated reproduction of Street Musicians encourages up-close examination of the differences between wealthy benefactors and poor beggars. The scene of two women, dressed in similarly colored clothes, exposes class distinctions. The different quality of the cloth, its illumination and lack thereof, and the difference in posture suggest that one woman is bestowing charity on the other.

Once inside, slate colored walls — some highly patterned, some stark — infuse each of the four galleries with an atmosphere of historic bearing. This collection of priceless art is sorted into separate rooms according to social class distinctions.

Vermeer’s 1665 A Lady Writing, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., represents an upper class woman. The ability to read and write was uncharacteristic of women of that era. Paintings such as this one would be commissioned by a family to boast of the family’s grandeur. The painting shares exhibition space with Vermeer’s 1668 The Astronomer, on loan from the Musée du Louvre in Paris. This thoughtful piece shows a man beside a globe. No doubt, he was a man of income with time to spare.

Representing the broadest spectrum of society, the middle class, Rembrandt’s 1633 The Shipbuilder and His Wife, on loan from Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Collection, depicts a wealthy merchant. It is typical of the type of art sought by tradesmen to underscore success. Many paintings of that epoch capture Dutch middle class family life, but the luminescence of this piece is singular and breathtaking.

In the plainest slate colored room, Gerard ter Borch’s A Maid Milking a Cow, on loan from Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum, captures the humble lifestyle of the Dutch rural poor. Similarly themed paintings in this room show life as routine and utilitarian. Colors are muted, fabrics appear to be coarse, and hair is left unadorned.

At the conclusion of the gallery tour, period table settings further depict life according to class in the 16th century Netherlands. Three tables show variances in textile, silverware, pottery, and glass. All pieces are recognizable in today’s global market place of plenty. The universality of life experiences, irrespective of the century, are compelling.

Beyond the cloistered walls of the exhibit, echoes from the well-planned collection resonate. Sixteenth century Dutch artifacts, designed to elucidate class distinctions, reflect current American class consciousness.

The true accomplishment of Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer is its refined ability to show that life today has many of the same trappings as five hundred years ago. Psychologically, socially, and morally, life in The Netherlands during the 16th century, when it was the seat of global power and a hub of culture, is not that different from the life we have now.

This exhibit is open to the public until Jan. 18, 2016. The Museum of Fine Arts is located at 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA 02115.


Diane Kilgore is a Boston-area blogger.