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

Date(s): Oct 11, 2015 – Jan 18, 2016
Location: 465 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA 02115, USA

Organized by the MFA, this groundbreaking exhibition proposes a new approach to understanding 17th-century Dutch painting. Through 75 carefully selected, beautifully preserved portraits, genre scenes, landscapes and seascapes borrowed from European and American public and private collections—including masterpieces never before seen in the United States—the show reflects, for the first time, the ways in which paintings represent the various socioeconomic groups of the new Dutch Republic, from the Princes of Orange to the most indigent.

Class distinctions had meaning and were expressed in the type of work depicted (or the lack thereof), costumes, a figure’s comportment and behavior, and his physical environment. Arranged according to 17th-century ideas about social stratification, paintings by artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu, are divided broadly into three classes—upper, middle and lower—and within them, into sub-groups.

Nobles, merchants, and milkmaids are among the figures in the thematic groupings, reflecting the social order of the new Dutch Republic. Viewers are encouraged to look closely at the images for clues that differentiate a mistress from a maid, or might distinguish a noble from a social-climbing merchant.

A final section explores the places where the classes in Dutch society met one another. Opportunities for these encounters arose in the city and the country, winter and summer, indoors and out, at leisure or at work, on the threshold of a house or of a business. Paintings depicting the meeting of the classes are among the liveliest of the era. Three table settings of objects used by each class (including salt cellars, candlesticks, mustard pots, and linens), but diverging in material and decoration—highlight material differences among the classes. The accompanying publication features essays by a team of distinguished Dutch scholars and exhibition curator Ronni Baer, the MFA’s William and Ann Elfers Senior Curator of Paintings.

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