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Boston art exhibit captures dynamic Dutch society in changing times

A new art exhibit is being heralded as the first show ever to look at the Dutch masterworks for how the painters viewed society. The exhibit, “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer," recently opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. WGBH's Jared Bowen reports.

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  • JARED BOWEN:

    Dutch painters in the 17th century cut a wide social swath. From the upper class—where artists found the well fed, the well healed and the well adorned in their shimmering fabrics and dazzling jewels.

    To the poverty-stricken where life was diminished. Their faces painted with despair.

  • RONNI BAER, SENIOR CURATOR OF EUROPEAN PAINTING, MFA:

    Even before all of the concern about the middle class and the 1 percent and the Occupy Wall Street—even before that, I think that people would have been able to look at these paintings and think and reflect back on their own lives and where they might fit into society.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    Class Distinctions at the Museum of Fine Arts is the first show ever to look at the Dutch Masters for how they looked at society. The economic divide couldn’t be any deeper says curator Ronni Baer.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    Tell me about, well, in this case, this poor little boy.

  • RONNI BAER:

    This is a very small panel, which you’ll notice his sock has a hole in it; he’s very disheveled. His clothes are not all of a piece. One feels a kind of sympathy to him. But he’s slouched over. His legs are splayed.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    Well this is obviously a staggering contrast to what we just saw.

  • RONNI BAER:

    Exactly.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    Who is this?

  • RONNI BAER:

     He was a textile merchant. He’s depicted a little bit from below so that it even increases his imposing stature. And he’s shown with this sword and this great curtain behind him as though he were an aristocratic, almost kingly like figure.

  • JARED BOWEN:

    Such is the life both lived and contrived. The wealthy, Baer says, were innately image conscious. There was drive to convey health, bounty and prestige. Certainly the case of this textile merchant and his blinged out wife.

  • RONNI BAER:

     He went to Van Der Helst, the most fashionable and successful portrait painter at the time, and had him portray them. It’s almost like an ad: this is the source of his money.

  • JARED BOWEN:

     Some of the works require decoding. The show features two exceedingly rare Vermeer loans. They merely suggest wealth rather than swim in it.

  • RONNI BAER:

     The fact that this woman is writing a letter already indicates her social status, that she’s wealthy enough to have the leisure to read and write and that she’s educated enough to read and write.

    The male counterpart to her in this show is an astronomer, or astrologer, and it’s a rare painting of a man by Vermeer. And he’s an amateur; he is doing this as a pastime, as a, as a intellectual pursuit that really only the wealthy could have done.

  • JARED BOWEN:

     Just as he is today, Rembrandt was highly sought after—even by the middle class. A shipbuilder and his wife commissioned this portrait on loan from Queen Elizabeth II.

  • RONNI BAER:

     The flesh tones, which are not melded in any way. You just have successive splashes of color, but your eye somehow does that work, and it makes him very lively looking. So the brushwork is great.

  • JARED BOWEN:

     They were upper middle class—a contrast to the baker, tradesmen and women tending to business in their more modest homes. And then there were the indigent—crowded, struggling.

    Both these paintings and table settings give a glimpse of how much life varied between the classes. How luxury turned practical. The show ends with a meeting of the classes.

  • RONNI BAER:

     The classes met everywhere: they met on the ice, they met on ferry boats, they met outside the city walls.

  • JARED BOWEN:

     But it’s where they met and could not cross that’s most poignant—at the door.

  • RONNI BAER:

     You’ve got this really strange, almost abstracting light on the rich people. Outside, it’s darker, it’s painted with ochers instead of these bright colors, and it’s much more broadly painted.

    So the itinerate musicians don’t get the white the wealthy people get, and they are painted in drab colors, and they are painted much more broadly and brushily. It’s an astounding thing.

  • JARED BOWEN:

     And where the classes remain most distinct.

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