Rembrandt and Vermeer may be the marquee names attached to the Museum of Fine Arts’ brand new, unprecedented exhibit, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, but the dizzying collective power of the exhibit’s 75 works—some of which are being shown in the US for the first time—is what transforms this from an event you don’t want to miss to an event you won’t be able to forget.
The exhibit, created by the MFA’s Curator of European Paintings Ronni Baer, has been in the works for over five years and will undoubtedly be remembered as one of Baer’s crowning achievements. The exhibit is an examination and exploration of Dutch society in the 17th century, a time during which the Dutch Republic emerged as not only a place of blossoming culture and science, but also a global superpower. It was a place of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, a disparity that is still making headlines.
The exhibit is divided into four sections: the upper class, the middle class, the lower class, and where the classes meet. Within each of those four main categories lie several more sub-categories.
The exhibit begins with the upper class, where some of the exhibit’s largest and most lavish works appear. It is here that we see some stunning displays of wealth, as well as a bit of humor. In Abraham del Court and His Wife, Maria de Kaersgieter by Bartholomeus Van der Heist, one of the most fashionable portraitists of the time, the woman delicately holds a rose while her husband, leaning back and looking almost like he might be in the middle of a sentence, holds her hand up so that her impressive wedding ring may be seen by all. The shimmer of her satin dress is one of the most remarkable renderings of fabric in the entire exhibit.
The first section is also where you’ll find two of the exhibit’s jewels, A Lady Writing and The Astronomer, both by Vermeer. The delicate beauty of both pieces in the flesh is so transfixing that you’ll likely want to see them several times throughout your visit.
In the section on the middle class, we see a fascinating glimpse into the lives and trades of what was 17th-century Dutch society’s most broad and diverse class. The centerpiece of the room is surely Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and His Wife, on loan from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II herself, in which Griet Jans is shown entering the room in a hurry to deliver a note to her working husband, Jan Rijcksen. To stand before this painting is, as they say, very near worth the price of admission alone.
A third and smaller room is where we find the lower class, from hard-working laborers to the indigent. Adriaen van de Venne’s Poor Luxury depicts the dishonorable poor and is chillingly void of any color.
After having visited with all of the different classes, the final room in which they all meet is a fitting and spectacular finale. From Hendrick Avercamp’s delightful Winter Scene on a Frozen Canal to Hendrick van Vliet’s daunting The Oude Kerk in Delft with the Tomb of Admiral Tromp, we see that the interactions between the classes are not much different than our own today.
Undoubtedly the finest exhibition that Boston has seen in years, Class Distinctions is a remarkable event that should skyrocket to the top of everyone’s to-do lists. With winter on the wing, there’s no better way to keep warm than in the glow of these Dutch masterpieces.
CLASS DISTINCTIONS: DUTCH PAINTING IN THE AGE OF REMBRANDT AND VERMEER. THROUGH 1.18 AT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, 465 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. MFA.ORG