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MFA’s ‘Class Distinctions’ explores social order through 17th-century paintings

In the basement of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston rests the exhibit “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer,” which puts a modern spin on 17th-century portraits and still-lifes to entice visitors of all ages. Seen through the lens of class—from high nobility to the dirt poor—each painting speaks to the dynamics of social life, using works that would normally feel distant and inaccessible to most. A truly innovative and one-of-a-kind exhibit, visitors can expect to see vivacity and life brought to centuries old renditions of distant places.

The first wall in the gallery explains all that the viewer is about to see. The curator touches on general themes of class distinctions in 17th-century Dutch paintings, such as the role of God’s hand in establishing social order, the class anxieties of the time as certain social groups became blurred, and the need to define rigid hierarchies of peoples. Each painting displayed in “Class Distinctions” can be interpreted as an effort to capture social dynamics, each artist “reflecting the aspirations of those commissioning” the paintings. In a tongue-in-cheek assertion, the curator reminds us that the gentry represented in the works of such painters as Rembrandt and Vermeer are the “one percent” of the age, tenaciously alluding to modern day class distinctions.

The first room displays portraits of nobility. People are painted in richly colored clothing, often on horseback, placed in front of looming estates in the background, or situated above small figures of the poor class, bending down to tend to their work. Often, multiple generations are shown to document genealogies. The rich would commission portraits to line decadent hallways, depicting lengthy family trees. The gallery walls here are a deep charcoal blue, and the backward-facing walls are embellished with stenciled patterns adding to the depth and sumptuousness of the first room.

The second room depicts those involved in trades who commissioned portraits to establish their rank as above those of the poor class. Subjects in this gallery are often seated around a table, directing the labor of those around them or are even placed against a solid backdrop, necks circled by the billowing white collars that modern viewers may normally associate with being only a stereotype of the era. The room of this social class is painted a rich violet. This section of the gallery appears to attract the least number of viewers and is awarded merely passing glances as visitors journey from the realm of the nobility into the realm of the poor.

The third room is simply titled “Labor.” The walls are an unstimulating gray. The paintings, however, are far from boring. Depicted in this room are a range of scenes, from crowds of people in open spaces, to wide expanses of ocean and ships fumbling in tumultuous seas. While the room of the wealthy and elite have placards boasting names such as “Frederick V of Bohemia” or “The Astronomer,” the art showing laboring peoples reflect no names or titles.

Finally, visitors end in the final room where the classes meet. Painted a neutral blue, the space reflects a mingling of people of all classes. Having journeyed from room to room, class to class, viewers can clearly see the variations in class in a heightened complexity. This final room is a test of what’s been learned in the journey through the gallery. The artists here depict wide arrays of colors and scenes, toying with the boundaries of public and private space, the sites where classes meet in dynamic and, at the time, anxiety-provoking ways.

To the far left of the paintings lay three tables encased in glass, putting art to convention. Each table is covered plainly with a white linen tablecloth. Standing far across the room, they appear nearly identical. However, upon closer inspection the tables each reflect a different social class. The far right table shows the table settings and accoutrements of the laboring class—simple cutlery and unadorned glassware. The middle table reflects the middle class and sports similar items but crafted with more care. Some serving platters and glasses are present, and more decorated.

Finally, the table to the far left shows the place settings of the upper class. Glassware appears to be of high quality, likely made by skilled artisans. The table is adorned with much more color and apparent depth, and would clearly be preferred should guests arrive for a meal. However, 21st-century onlookers appear to strain their eyes looking for differences, as the table settings are largely the same in comparison to what you may see today. The table settings of the high class today may involve gold-plated silverware or delicate and finely painted china, and the tableware of the low class may involve chipped and cracked plates and plasticware.

Taken at face-value, these paintings may not attract such a wide audience. Yet the Museum of Fine Arts sees thousands of visitors to this gallery on “Class Distinctions.” The lens of social class and hierarchy lends itself to a modern view, creating such popularity in viewers today.

“[We] wanted to present masterpieces of Dutch painting; that was the initial impetus. But in order to get people to lend you masterpieces, you need to be able to convince them that the loan is worth it. And so that’s where class distinctions comes in. Because this is an aspect of Dutch art that hasn’t been looked at before,” curator Ronni Baer remarked. For the owners of these masterpieces and for those able to view them, seeing depictions of class has surely been enticing.

Brandeis students, with valid ID, will be able to visit the Museum of Fine Arts and see “Class Distinctions” free of charge. The exhibit remain on display through Monday, Jan. 18, 2016.

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