From nobles to merchants to milkmaids, Dutch artists in the time of Rembrandt and Vermeer portrayed all levels of society in masterful detail.

Organized by the MFA, this groundbreaking exhibition proposes a new approach to understanding 17th-century Dutch painting. Through 75 carefully selected, beautifully preserved portraits, genre scenes, landscapes and seascapes borrowed from European and American public and private collections—including masterpieces never before seen in the United States—the show reflects, for the first time, the ways in which paintings represent the various socioeconomic groups of the new Dutch Republic, from the Princes of Orange to the most indigent.

Class distinctions had meaning and were expressed in the type of work depicted (or the lack thereof), costumes, a figure’s comportment and behavior, and 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, are divided broadly into three classes—upper, middle and lower—and within them, into sub-groups.

Nobles, merchants, and milkmaids are among the figures in the thematic groupings, reflecting the social order of the new Dutch Republic. Viewers are encouraged to look closely at the images for clues that differentiate a mistress from a maid, or might distinguish a noble from a social-climbing merchant.

A final section explores the places where the classes in Dutch society met one another. Opportunities for these encounters arose in the city and the country, winter and summer, indoors and out, at leisure or at work, on the threshold of a house or of a business. Paintings depicting the meeting of the classes are among the liveliest of the era. Three table settings of objects used by each class (including salt cellars, candlesticks, mustard pots, and linens), but diverging in material and decoration—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.

Page through a selection of 15 folios from Adriaen van de Venne’s Album of Watercolors, on view in the exhibition, to see depictions of various segments of 17th-century Dutch society.

Above: Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing, about 1665. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer, 1962.10.1

A Lady Writing portrays a privileged woman engaged in the art of letter writing. The activity was associated with a certain level of education, and her clothing and belongings denote wealth.


In the News

Sponsors

Presented with generous support from the Committee of Honor and the Robert Lehman Foundation.

Additional support provided by the Netherland-America Foundation and an anonymous foundation.

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Generous support for the publication was provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Publications Fund.

Media Sponsor is WCVB Channel 5 Boston.