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

11 October 2015 - 18 January 2016

Information from the museum

Organized by the MFA, this groundbreaking exhibition proposes a new approach to the understanding of 17th-century Dutch painting. Included are 75 carefully selected and beautifully preserved portraits, genre scenes, landscapes and seascapes borrowed from European and American public and private collections—including masterpieces never before seen in the US. The show will reflect, for the first time, the ways in which art signals the socioeconomic groups of the new Dutch Republic, from the Princes of Orange to the most indigent of citizens. Class distinctions had meaning and were expressed in the type of work depicted (or the lack thereof), the costumes, a figure’s comportment and behavior, or 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, will be divided into three classes—upper, middle and lower—and further sub-divided into eight categories. A final section will explore the places where the classes in Dutch society met one another. Additionally, 45 works of decorative arts—objects used by each class but diverging in material and decoration (for example, salt cellars, candlesticks, mustard pots, linens)—will be installed in three table settings to 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.

MFA exhibition shows Dutch masters reflecting changing times (The Boston Globe)

Curator Ronni Baer explains uniqueness of the exhibition ‘Class Distinctions’ in a video on The Boston Globe.

“Roughly a third of the pictures have never been exhibited in the United States, and several of the paintings, including Vermeer’s “The Astronomer,” Steen’s “The Poultry Yard,” and Rembrandt’s “The Shipbuilder and his Wife,” are rarely-loaned masterworks that show the artists at the peak of their respective powers.”