Even to the trained eye, there is something unrelenting about most 17th-century Dutch art. The appetite for and production of paintings in that golden age guaranteed vast numbers of many types — landscapes, seascapes, dunescapes, church interiors, still lifes of all kinds, drunken peasants, sunlit cows, fish markets, naughty housemaids, bawdy wenches, praying families (to name a few) — in images more repetitive than original. The problem of interpreting art of this period seems as much a task for statistics as art history: how to make sense of this mass of data?
The exhibition Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) picks up a few strands of the tangle, making use of the general social structure of Dutch society to help sort through this wealth of visual information. For the rest of Europe, this structure would have been familiar at the bottom — laborers and beggars — and at the top — the nobility — but would have presented a surprise in the creamy center: a new middle class, coffers fattened by trade. It is this group that is arguably the engine of the Dutch market for paintings, and their presence, visible and invisible, may be sensed in almost all the images on display.
The exception is the portraits of nobles, who simply insist upon occupying the first rooms of the exhibition hall. It had been the task of monarchs to raise families to the nobility, and the Dutch had just dispensed with theirs, throwing off the domination of the Spanish Hapsburgs at the end of the 16th century. This left the noble class on the wane in numbers if not in strands of pearls, stiff lace collars, and pneumatic sleeves, as Paulus Moreelse’s “Portrait of Ermgard Elisabeth van Dorth” (1624) demonstrates. Soon enough, rich merchants rushed into the void in the upper class, nobles in everything but title. Bartholomeus van der Helst painted the portraits of more than a few of these aspirants, his work perhaps valued for his uncanny ability to bring more life to their rich clothing than to their faces, as in “Portrait of Abraham del Court and his wife, Maria de Kaersgieter” (1654).
It is into this highest class where the two Vermeers in the exhibition are slotted: the subjects of “The Astronomer” (1668) and “A Lady Writing” (1665) signal their wealth not merely by their clothes but by pastimes that betoken learning and leisure. In this context, we can see Vermeer’s technique as an attribute of their refinement, and their light touch on their tools — pen and celestial globe — as a metaphor of Vermeer’s delicate, vaporous brushwork.
For kicks, head straight from “A Lady Writing” to Rembrandt’s “Portrait of the Shipbuilder Jan Rijcksen and his Wife” (1633) in the next room. The young woman’s light touch on her note in the Vermeer is replaced in the Rembrandt by the wife’s hearty grip on a business dispatch, rushed into the husband’s office. There is no leisure here; the size and mastery of Rembrandt’s painting itself measures the fruit of the couple’s labors. Rembrandt’s muscular brushwork follows the contours of the figures, hewing out the illusion of space in the simple wood-lined room. Rembrandt’s facture could not be farther from Vermeer’s seemingly touchless glazes, nor the beribboned curls of “The Lady Writing” from plain-bonneted head of the shipbuilder’s wife.
Scattered around this painting like minor satellites, a series of smaller canvases depict people at work in some of the professions available to inhabitants of the new republic. Women tend the store and the home, expressing domestic virtue in the nearly-lost language of tidy hearths, pliant children, and clean linens, while men go to soldier, perform minor surgery, notarize documents, and sound a horn to alert us to fresh-baked bread. All of these professionals are locked in the grid of interior architecture, graphed distinctly into their spaces — with the exception of Jacob Backer’s “Half-Naked Woman with a Coin” (1636) who nearly springs out of her frame like her breasts from her bodice, holding up her price tag.
These neatly gridded spaces for the most part give way, in the section reserved for laborers and the indigent, to outdoor scenes, rundown barns, and shabby outbuildings. In “Maid Milking her Cow in a Barn” (1652–4), Gerard ter Borch renders such a space in all its evocative contingency, like the way the ladder to the hayrack tilts just so, hooked onto a post. Ter Borch’s work appears elsewhere in the show, including a pair of drolly vacuous portraits of burghers, miniaturized into ciphers of prosperity, and the elegant fantasy “Lady at her Toilette” (c. 1660). But in this canvas he trades the patricians and the satin-clad lady for a milkmaid and very sympathetic cow, placidly awaiting her turn to be milked.
The distinct particularity of place in the scene of the milkmaid intensifies in Ter Borch’s “The Knife Grinder’s Family,” (1653) where the sense of bucolic plenty invoked by the milk-heavy cows in the barn gives way to a damp dreariness in the backyard of an urban house (is this what is meant by “grinding poverty”?). The foreground is littered by broken crockery and an upturned, sprung-seated wicker chair, indicators of dissolution rarely found outside of tavern scenes. Sharing the foreground are the knife grinder’s wife and child. She is searching through the child’s hair for lice, a task that mothers of any era know cuts across class lines. However, the child’s stockings slouch, the mother’s hair is disheveled, and her bonnet is less than white. The contrast here with the scenes of rigorously tidy bourgeois domesticity in the previous room suggests a self-satisfied circular reasoning: the house is untidy not because she is poor, she is poor because it is untidy.
Inevitably, the classes must meet, in public spaces and at thresholds. In these paintings, there is a sense of intermingling but not interaction. Even in Hendrick Avercamp’s “Winter Scene on a Frozen Canal,” (1620) where everyone is on skates, the different groups keeps to themselves and it is the frozen inertness of the ice that speaks to the social relations, not the fluidity of the movement of the skaters or the dark water that we can imagine sliding beneath the ice.
Even when directly confronted with the poor, there is a sense in which the prosperous never quite engage with them, as in Jacob Ochtervelt’s “Street Musicians at the Door” (1665). The musicians appear at the door, but it is the rich people in the interior who are brightly, and improbably, illuminated by the outdoor light. Mother and nanny orchestrate the excited child’s donation of a coin to the musical pair, but barely pay them a glance. The musicians, rendered in a duller palette than those indoors, almost look like they are in a painting within a painting — and of course, they are. Like all these artworks, they are abstractions of a social reality, filtered through the mindset of the middle class, imagining itself through the eye and hand of the painters.
In the end, this exhibition forcefully reminds us that all paintings are fictions, no matter what their truth claims. While the concept of social class may help us sort through 17th-century Dutch painting, Dutch painting can only obliquely help us understand 17th-century Dutch social class. Perhaps the exhibition-goer’s best shot at access to the realities of Dutch lives is in the cases in the last room that display linens, crockery, and table service that correspond to the different classes. We’re looking through glass, through time, and the curator’s careful mise-en-scène, but the objects speak for themselves.
Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Avenue of the Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts) through January 18, 2016.
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