Every time I see an exhibit of paintings from the so-called Golden Age of Dutch art (or teach about them, especially Vermeer’s, in my Commodities course), I am struck by the extent to which they provide a window on the changing class nature of Dutch society at the time.
That’s why I am intrigued by the new show, at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” (see also this review [ht: ja]). The content of the individual paintings, at least the ones I am familiar with, as well as the economic status of the painters themselves and the new art markets that developed (and ultimately crashed) during the seventeenth century can tell a rich story about the emergence of capitalism in a heretofore noncapitalist economy and society.
And, of course, here we are in 2015, when the United States is characterized by obscene and still-growing levels of inequality. Perhaps, then, we are ready to see and think about class distinctions, at least in seventeenth-century Dutch society.
So, I am intrigued by this show—but also worried. That’s because, according to what I have read, the paintings are arranged in separate rooms according to class. Low, middle, and upper-class, “a bit like airplane seating.”
The exhibit follows a logical sequence by grouping paintings of the wealthiest ranks in one room and then moving down the social strata in the following sections. The final room ties the exhibit together by depicting paintings of ferries and public squares where members of each class intersect.
The question is, what is the notion of class that informs the Boston show?
As I see it, you can’t have one class without the others. It’s a class system—the different classes are related to one another, through performances and flows of necessary and surplus labor—not just different displays of clothing, interior furnishings, and activities. And the emergence of capitalism within the Netherlands created a new pattern of performances and flows compared to what had existed before and what existed even at that time throughout much of the rest of Western Europe.
If the paintings of the period are going to be utilized to illustrate those new class relations, then perhaps it would have been better to group them differently—for example, to show within the same room how the surplus labor that was captured by some households, and then utilized to relinquish members of those same households from the need to work and, in addition, to hire milkmaids and other servants and to purchase items of conspicuous consumption from abroad, was also deployed to make sure additional surplus labor continued to be performed by the other members of Dutch society.
That’s the exhibit of Dutch paintings that, in my view, could have been organized in Boston.