Distinguished ‘Class Distinctions’ Offers New Perspectives on Dutch Art and Society | Arts | The Harvard Crimson

The Shipbuilder and his Wife, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633, British Royal Collection Photo: Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

By Victoria Zhuang, Crimson Staff Writer October 13, 2015

The canvasses in “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer,” with their umber depths and their silent figures in light, impart a timeless warmth. But as the exhibition reminds viewers, this apparent simplicity belies the artists’ attentiveness to the times. Each painting is also a depiction, assessment, and reimagination of social differences in the 17th-century Netherlands. The show, on view Oct. 11-Jan. 18 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, innovatively unites 75 superb genre scenes, portraits, and landscapes presenting individuals of different classes. MFA curator Ronni Baer obtained 73 of the works on loan from collections across Europe and North America.

Nearly a third are being shown for the first time in the U.S., and additionally, several are lesser-known masterpieces from the likes of Frans Hals, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen, and Gerrit Dou. Even more impressive than their novelty is the freshness of their arrangement. Neighboring works from different artists complement or complicate each other’s observations on class. Together they offer a nuanced investigation into the rise of a bourgeoisie created by global trade and a sympathetic meditation on striving to improve, maintain, or accept one’s class identity.

It is representations of newly privileged members of Dutch 17th-century society which best reflect this characteristic beauty of the golden age. Paintings of nobles are among the dimmer lights in the exhibition—with the exception of Anthony van Dyck’s magnificent “Portrait of Frederik Hendrik”—because nobles, whose social identities were assured, did not care to hire painters who would best present their image. By contrast, in Vermeer’s beautiful “A Lady Writing” and “The Astronomer,” the subjects wear the latest fashions—the astronomer, for instance, wears an imported Japanese robe—rather than traditional aristocratic garb, indicating a more recent ascent to wealth.

Everyone with a modicum of income could afford to buy paintings, and the joy of having just acquired privilege animates these works: From the nouveau riche, with their arriviste pretensions so wonderfully depicted in Frans Hals’s and Rembrandt’s stout full-length heavy portraits, to soldiers, priests, and notaries, to the industrious barber-surgeons, tailors, bakers, and grocers in Dou and others, to Nicolaes Mae’s female lacemaker and Pieter de Hooch’s housemaids, and finally a well-paid prostitute, each is in turn given their industrious glow. Even paintings in the lower-class room constitute another, indirect portrait of the bourgeoisie: They feature an urban group known as the “worthy poor,” receiving alms from the affluent citizens who were recording their generosity in the commissioned paintings. The poor were always shown as a function of the upper-middle class’s self-conception rather than their own need to be seen.

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