leanor Foa Dienstag

Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer

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If you find yourself in Boston during the next two months, don’t miss a splendid exhibition, now at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA): Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. There are no plans for it to travel in the U.S., so this is your only chance.

The exhibition not only brings together 75 extraordinary 17th century Dutch paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hals, Steen, de Hooch and others, many never before seen in the U.S., but views them through the fascinating lens of social class – upper, middle and lower – then groups them thematically within each class. Themes include  “Women at Work,” “Nobles and Aspiring Nobles,” “Regents and Wealthy Merchants,” etc.

This curatorial device works. It forces us to look closely at each painting and to reflect more broadly on the culture of 17th Century Holland as depicted in these canvasses. That culture included the possibility of upward mobility, the creation of paintings for the open market, and the surprising diversity of roles for women at every level of society.

5. The Shipbuilder and His Wife 2. Street Musicians at the Door2. Street Musicians at the Door

Street Musicians at the Door 

As exhibition curator Ronni Baer notes, “These carefully selected paintings allow us to glimpse the ways rank and status are expressed pictorially. For example, is the sitter’s dress made of silk or coarse wool? Is the subject serving or being served? Does the figure stand upright or is he stooped? Even the person’s behavior—snoring in a pub or riding a horse—indicates his social class. Details like these encourage us to form a sharper and more nuanced picture of 17th-century Dutch life and society.”


A Lady Writing

The depiction of women in this exhibition is particularly fascinating. To begin with, it’s clear from these paintings that women in the 17th century Dutch Republic were highly valued, and enjoyed a remarkable degree of independence, both inside and outside the home. In “A Lady Writing,” for example, we see not only a woman of leisure but one who is educated enough to write a letter, whose possessions signify wealth – pearls on the writing desk, bejeweled earrings, an ermine-trimmed jacket – and whose home setting conveys the furniture and dignity of an urban elite woman.

In “Street Musicians at the Door,” on the other hand, we see a more complex domestic scene. At the doorway of a townhouse, a mix of classes and genders are interacting: a patrician wife dressed in a gorgeous – and gorgeously painted — outfit stands on an elegant marble floor and hands a coin to her child; a female maidservant guides the young child to take the coin and give it to two lower-class itinerant musicians who emerge from murky but distinctly urban streets. It not only encapsulates class distinctions but conveys a message– the rich are obliged to provide charity to those less privileged and to educate the young to these responsibilities – that is a recurring theme in Dutch painting.


Interior with Women beside a Linen Cupboard 

A more middle class slice of life is depicted in “Interior with Women beside a Linen Cupboard.” Ostensibly about a mother instructing her daughter in the proper care of linens, one of the household’s most valuable assets, it highlights the many objects and accoutrements of a well appointed Dutch home – its paintings, windows, light, floors, spaciousness – while also demonstrating the artist’s superb mastery of reflection and perspective.

groceryGrocery Shop 

In the “Grocery Shop,” part of the Women at Work theme, we get a good idea of what was available to purchase, and see the shop as a meeting place for a variety of classes. We also learn that , among other things, Dutch women, in contrast to other European societies, were permitted to take over and run a husband’s business. Again, in this painting women are stage center, while a man hovers about in the rear shadows, which in itself is a startling statement.

Professionals and businessmen commissioned portraits, and it’s fascinating to see, for example, how the wife is portrayed in Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and his Wife. It calls to mind the opening scene of a drama yet to unfold, as opposed to a placid and conventional double portrait, and again underscores the key role of the wife in this surprising canvass.

Three Dining Tables (Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag)

6Lower Class

7Middle Class

8Upper Class

A perfect final touch, in the exhibition’s last room, are three dining tables upon which are displayed eating utensils and decorative objects appropriate to each class. The upper-class candlesticks are of silver, for example, while the middle and lower class candlesticks have the same form, but one is of brass and the other of earthenware. Each table also features linen appropriate to that class, because even the lower classes covered their dining tables with linen for meals.

This is one of those family-friendly exhibitions that everyone can enjoy, not only for the extraordinary quality of its art but for its insights into a world that, in large part, laid the foundation for our own.

Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
October 11, 2015 – January 18, 2016

Images: Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Image 1
Jan Rijcksen and His Wife, Griet Jans, known as “The Shipbuilder and His Wife” 
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669)
Oil on canvas
*British Royal Collection
*Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Image 2
Street Musicians at the Door 
Jacob Ochtervelt (Dutch, 1634–1682)
Oil on canvas
*Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Eugene A. Perry in Memory of her mother, Mrs. Claude Kilpatrick
*Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Image 3
A Lady Writing 
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675)
about 1665
Oil on canvas
*National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., in memory of their
father, Horace Havemeyer, 1962.10.1
*Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Image 4
Interior with Women beside a Linen Cupboard 
Pieter de Hooch (Dutch, 1629–after 1684)
Oil on canvas
*Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam
*Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Image 5
Grocery Shop 
Gerrit Dou (Dutch, 1613–1675)
Oil on panel
*Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures
*Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


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