Global Commerce

In the 17th century, the Dutch dominated world-spanning routes linking ports in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Dutch trading companies flourished in part by devising financial systems we still use today such as money transfers, the stock exchange, and the centralized bank. But their success was also built on the appropriation of overseas territory and the brutal system of slavery.

This gallery features a range of works that evoke Dutch trade networks stretching from the North Sea to the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Japan. Paintings include seascapes by Willem van de Velde the Younger and Ludolf Bakhuizen, as well as still lifes depicting a variety of local and imported commodities, including precious glassware produced in Antwerp and blue-and-white porcelain from China. Three volumes of Joan Blaeu’s Atlas maior illustrate cartography’s connection to capitalism.

Despite their benign appearance, the still lifes in this gallery raise questions about the darker history of international trade. Sugar, a main ingredient of the delicacies in many paintings, was produced in Brazil by enslaved laborers from Africa. The gallery’s juxtaposition of still lifes, a Brazilian landscape painting, and a map of Brazil with a mill highlights the previously overlooked connections between sugar consumption, plantation labor, and slavery.

An advisory group of subject specialists beyond the MFA informed the interpretation of this gallery. The group’s participants were Pepijn Brandon, assistant professor of History, Free University of Amsterdam; Mary Hicks, assistant professor of History, University of Chicago; Jessie Park, Nina and Lee Griggs Assistant Curator of European Art, Yale University Art Gallery; Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Michael Zell, associate professor of Art History, Boston University.​

  • Leo and Phyllis Beranek Gallery (Gallery 243)