The Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ groundbreaking exhibition, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, explores the social condition of class in seventy-five glorious seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, many exhibited for the first time in the United States. Precedents such as Arm in de Gouden Eeuw, shown in the Amsterdam Historisches Museum in 1969, concentrate on a single class. Much to the credit of the show’s curator, Ronni Baer, the Boston exhibit, rather than focusing on a single genre or class, presents a fuller, more comprehensive overview in portraits, landscape and genre images. The first three rooms are organized around the period’s class distinctions. The final room is devoted to “where the classes meet.” The divisions follow the catalogue essays – i.e. the upper class (the nobility, the regents, and rich merchants), followed by a middle class, (non-manual occupations and laborers, with the sub-division of the important subject of women and work); and finally, the lower classes (the abject poor). Surprisingly there are few peasant paintings per se by, for example, the Ostade brothers or Brouwer. Rather, the non-programmatic free and easy mix of portrait, landscape, seascape and genre presented throughout the exhibition allow for the deeper complexity of the overall project to come through.
Some works might have been equally at home in other rooms. example, Ter Borch’s A Woman Milking a Cow in a Barn of 1652-1654 and van Ostade’s Fishwife of 1672 fit well in the Women’s Work section. But how inventive is it to show the Fishwife next to seascapes with fishermen? One could have completed the fish industry references by connecting Rembrandt’s glorious 1633 double portrait of The Shipbuilder and His Wife (Jan Rijksen and His Wife, Griet Jans) with the subsequent applications of his labor.
In fact, interaction between classes is pervasive throughout the exhibition; present in every room, not just the last one. It could easily be the show’s take-away ideological core. Several paintings, for example, Thomas de Keyser’s 1627 portrait Constantine Huygens and His Clerk and Job Berckheyde’s 1672 Office of a Notary Publicrepresent literal exchanges between classes. Several group portraits depicting a single class are also based on class relations, especially charity, a socio/religious responsibility well documented in the Dutch Republic. Examples include Frans Hals’ Regents of the St. Elizabeth Hospital in Haarlem of 1641 depicting an affluent community who served the poor, while the amazing and unique Portraits of the Men from the St. Job Inn in Utrecht Collecting Alms by Jan van Bijlert shows the other side of the charitable equation. Bridging the categories of genre and portrait are Jan Steen’s 1655 Adolf and Catharina Crosser on the Oude Delft, and the Distribution of Bread in the Almshouse of 1627.
In the realm of genre proper, we have Jacob Ochtervelt’s urchin street musicians at the door of a wealthy home of 1665. As for landscape/cityscape, Esaias van de Velde’s Courtly Procession before Apspoel Castle of 1619 splits the composition between an elegant couple on horseback to the right and the dispensing of alms to beggars to the left. Jan van der Heyden centralizes the theme with a beggar child following a rich couple, in View of the Sint Anthonispoort of 1663.
The endemic and diverse formulations of class distinctions in Dutch visual culture may lead us to consider its formulation in written culture. The catalogue essays are a veritable treasure trove of information about the period and will be consulted forever by any serious scholar of seventeenth-century Dutch social history. Notwithstanding, for me, they could all benefit from a dose of relativism with the realization that primary sources are, like their visual counterparts, shaped by conventions and context. If the authors in van Nierop’s essay, The Anatomy of Society, agree on the immutable separation and constitution of the classes, is that not a function of their shared ideology rather than the historical “truth”? If they all advocate for a status quo, could that not be seen as a traditionalist strategy to contain the threatening social mobility that was rampant in the Dutch Republic? This conservative position played against contemporary progressive views that advocated for a fluid movement between social classes, part of a nascent capitalism for which the Dutch Republic has long been credited.
The many paintings that emphasize the extreme poles of class distinctions, the very rich and very poor, singularly and together, also work to advance a more traditionalist view of Dutch society. Interestingly, class distinctions are mostly blurred in upper middle class domestic interiors with mistresses and their servants, the core of De Winkel’s essay.
“Smelling Rank and Status,” Herman Roodenberg’s essay, takes on a particularly loaded subject for producing images of class distinctions. Yet, the roses associated with Maria de Kaergieter in Batholomeus van der Helst’s 1654 portrait of her and her husband, Abraham de la Court, seem more to the point in signaling smell than the presumed buttermilk odor of his shirt. The defecating woman in the foreground of Jan Steen’s Peasants Merry Making outside an Inn shows a go-to image of smell for peasant classes. Both roses and defecation commonly portrayed “smell” in series of the five senses per se; for example, Goltzius’s images of upper class women and Molenaer’s 1637 Five Senses paintings in the Mauritshuis, where a peasant mother wipes her child’s bottom. As for the smell of decaying bodies supposedly alluded to in church interiors, paintings of The Raising of Lazarus by Duccio, Giotto, Ouwater, Geertgen tot Sint Jans and even Pieter Lastman showed the stench of Lazarus’ body by including a staffage figure holding his nose. The fact that Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and other seventeenth-century painters omitted this detail shows at the very least that this reference to death’s stench was no longer attractive to Baroque sensibilities.
All in all, the catalogue and exhibition are an intellectually and visually stimulating joy and open the window to a whole new and progressive way to understand and appreciate seventeenth-century Dutch painting.
The College of Staten Island/CUNY