‘Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer’, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — ‘Addictive’

'Regents of the St Elisabeth Hospital of Haarlem' (1641) by Frans Hals©Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem

‘Regents of the St Elisabeth Hospital of Haarlem’ (1641) by Frans Hals

Scrutinising our own planet for indicators of class is too fraught and confusing to be enjoyable — the brands are as well worldwide, the customs too fickle for mere amateurs to parse. But look back in time, and social structures obtain a comforting clarity. Cinematographers, costume designers and curators can let a lace collar or a haircut speak for a person’s status, safe that viewers will notice the clues. Class Distinctions, an addictive show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, dissects the social strata of the 17th-century Netherlands with all the materialistic obsessiveness of an artistic Downton Abbey. It even includes 3 tables, set with the wares of their respective classes. The rich dined on blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, the poor on cheery clay.

You can get pleasure from the show as a study in mores, as an essay on social stratification, or basically as a romp via a globe of warm light, soft wool and scratching quills. Dutch artists observed their fellow citizens’ pleasures and routines, which signifies they also observed the minutiae of social stratification. Just as a wilting flower in a nevertheless life signified mortality and a dog represented the virtue of loyalty, so every single buckle and button bespoke an economic order. For the purposes of the exhibition, curator Ronni Baer has simplified urban life into a 3-layered cake we recognise today, with the nobility and the poor sandwiching a a lot more varied middle class of tradesmen, artisans, manufacturers and merchants.

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Artists naturally devoted a lot time and power to the wealthy, since they were the ones commissioning portraits, and also due to the fact they wore the luxuriant inky fabrics that were so much enjoyable to paint. In his portrait of the strong burgher Andries de Graeff, Rembrandt demonstrates a tailor’s feel for texture, virtually inviting the viewer to run a finger more than the layers of felt, leather, silk, velvet, linen and lace.

The monochrome fashions of public men could be a challenge to paint. Frans Hals’ 1641 “Regents of the St Elisabeth Hospital of Haarlem” all dress in severe black, eschewing ostentation and projecting power at the exact same time. These had been the sorts of males who managed civic life. The upper echelon ran charity hospitals, kept the peace, fed the poor and controlled the markets.

The miracle of this painting is the way Hals converts a static boardroom scene into a miniature theatre piece, with the interplay of personalities lit from offstage. We get a glimpse into the committee’s machinations: the chairman faces confidently into the light, positive of his authority, even though across the table one member leans over another’s shoulder as if to murmur the terms of a side deal. The costumes could be basic and the room plain, but Hals has framed a tableau of Machiavellian complexity.

'Street Musicians at the Door' (1665 ) (detail) by Jacob Ochtervelt©Saint Louis Art Museum

‘Street Musicians at the Door’ (1665 ) (detail) by Jacob Ochtervelt

Dutch burghers cared for the poor, but not always in the spirit of adore. The painters surely echoed the upper classes’ prevailing attitudes when they depicted the populace as a collection of thick, quick, leering figures with a tendency to hunch. Artists honoured function much more than they did the workers. Job Berckheyde’s baker announces a fresh batch of bread by blowing into a horn, and his cheeks swell so cartoonishly that he resembles a cross amongst a chipmunk and Dizzy Gillespie. But oh, that bread: his handiwork is arrayed prior to him, a noble display of burnished pretzels and lovingly textured loaves.

Adriaen van Ostade, too, finds a measure of nobility in a fishwife’s labours, but seems more enraptured by the creature becoming gutted and scaled than by the lady wielding the knife. The indigent suffered even much more in paint, as they did in life. In his enigmatically titled “Poor Luxury” (1635) Adriaen van de Venne conjures up an army of rag-clad toothless zombies coming for the nicely-to-do.

Although divisions had been firm, the classes could hardly keep from brushing collectively in the dense urban weft of Amsterdam or Haarlem. The show is strongest when it lingers on these encounters. Some take place in panoramas of public space, such as Hendrick Avercamp’s “Winter Scene on a Frozen Canal” (c1620), in which everybody has come out to get pleasure from the season, even a puzzled hunting dog in a heavy coat eyeing his master’s catch.

'The Burgher of Delft and His Daughter' (1655) (detail) by Jan Steen©Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

‘The Burgher of Delft and His Daughter’ (1655) (detail) by Jan Steen

But the upper classes didn’t require to venture on to the ice to be confronted with the hoi polloi. Jan Steen’s “Burgher of Delft and His Daughter” (1655) shows a man whose jowls, girth, and expansive way of hogging a bench all express his ample bank account. He sits on his stoop (a Dutch word, for a Dutch architectural feature), staring down a destitute woman and youngster who have stopped to ask him for a coin or two. His fashionably dressed young daughter turns away in the manner of teenagers through the ages, pretending her parent is a stranger and the beggars do not exist.

Astute painters saw that border zone amongst private property and the public realm as a stage of sorts, bursting with drama. In Jacob Ochtervelt’s “Street Musicians at the Door” (1665), a fiddler and a hurdy-gurdy man seem at the threshold of a wealthy house. Dressed in sackcloth and fustian, they are emissaries from a dim world the street beyond is wreathed in evening haze. The two dusty creatures lean into the doorway but dare not enter the marble hall. You can virtually hear the scratchy, out-of-tune music drifting by means of the residence, which has a magical luminescence, as if inside and out occupied different time zones. Light swirls in from some unseen source, causing the mistress’s pale skin and azure-and-red ochre gown to glow. That is no a heavenly ray, even though it is the gleam of income.

Rembrandt’s Amsterdam feels modern due to the fact it was deeply materialistic. Wealth measured moral fibre, so inner rectitude could be study in the top quality of clothing. This is what tends to make Class Distinctions seem to be as significantly about the 21st century as the 17th. You emerge a connoisseur of social distinctions, and in the streets of another city, notice two guys of comparable age and construct emerging from an office constructing in apparently identical dark blue suits. But it takes only a glance to see that the a single in the well-fitted wool outfit outranks (and out-earns) the one wearing baggy acrylic, and you wonder: what would Frans Hals do with these two unwitting avatars of status?

‘Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer’ runs to January 18 at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, mfa.org

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Section: Arts