Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer at the Museum of Fine Arts
Representative works of 17th century Dutch masters have been collected at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and organized there according to that society’s social classes. The remarkable show carries us from beginning to end with the potency of a big-blossom era of European wealth creation and artistic genius.
Entering the exhibit, visitors are surrounded by large portraits of the Dutch upper class. The couples particularly appear imperious, idle and ridiculous, their fat hands turned outward in gestures of leisure and power.
The next room shows the middle classes and women at work. Some larger portraits of tradesman, clergy and clerks imitate poses of the nobility. Most of the figures are diminished and set within the environments of their professions. Hands disappear, as in the portrait of Jacob Backer’s prostitute with her breasts and a coin on display, or turned to their daily tax collecting or lace making. The dignified tailor, sitting cross-legged and tall but not at all large, moves us along.
The third room shows the working class and the desperate poor. Colors turn from the deep-contrast black and white of the aristocracy to muddy browns and greens. Faces, flattered and unmistakable in the portraits of the nobility, now are turned away from us or smeared and unrecognizable. The children of the earth are shown butchering hogs, fishing and cleaning fish, sharpening knives, begging for bread, dancing in a dither and falling over drunk. Or, the people, not only their hands, disappear all together in sea scenes, for example, with fishing boats at work in the bay and fisher folk tiny on the decks.
The final room attempts to show where the classes met: on the street where the poor begged at the doorstep of the wealthy, on the frozen river which offered its recreation and fresh air to everyone, in the church where the wealthy were served with flatteries and some of the poor were served with charity.
On one wall, neatly displayed under glass, are dinner settings from the three classes: upper glass blue and white ceramics from China, and silverware; middle class tin-glazed white ceramic and pewter; working class lead-glazed earthenware the color of the richest sunrise, green glass and wooden utensils.