The organizers of a new exhibit of Dutch painting masterpieces opening Wednesday at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art may very well have had today’s political environment in mind.
An underlying theme of the show is “income inequality,” a phrase on which many a stump speech has been delivered during the current presidential campaign.
In fact, if Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, had any extra time during his scheduled stop in Kansas City on Wednesday, he could deepen the palette of his political discourse on the subject by taking in the portraits and street scenes of rich and poor in the 17th-century Dutch Republic.
We’re not kidding.
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“Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer,” organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, does, indeed, examine the lives of the rich and famous alongside the working poor, the destitute and everyone in between. So the appeal of some great secular art works, made on the eve of the Enlightenment, is at least partly based on how we can recognize in them enduring themes of power, money and social conflict.
Its portraits of the “one-percenters” — landowners, regents, nobles and merchants — shimmer with elegant fabrics, pearls and exquisitely detailed finery. You can imagine the pictures as the antique equivalent of high-society spreads in Vogue or the forebears of the landed gentry of Architectural Digest or the Wall Street Journal’s Mansions section.
A formidable, full-length portrait, by Rembrandt, of Andries de Graeff, a longtime mayor of Amsterdam and free imperial knight of the Holy Roman Empire, is a study in haughty self-importance. (Note the glove flung on the floor, and look closely at the man’s eyes, which seem to follow you as you move around his space.) The discovery that de Graeff argued with Rembrandt over the cost of the painting carries a humorous but sadly unsurprising echo that wealth comes not without its privileges.
The show has two other Rembrandt portraits (though none as gorgeously rendered as his portrait of “Dirck van Os” in the collection of the Joslyn Museum in Omaha). There is also one luminously attractive small painting by Vermeer (there were two in the Boston version of the show), which depicts an upscale woman in the act of writing. But aside from the marquee names of the show’s title, one of the exhibit’s great pleasures is the opportunity to spend time with extraordinary pictures by a wide range of artists presenting the breadth of cultural experience.
Franz Hals’ quintet of black-hatted, white-collared gentlemen, the “Regents of the St. Elisabeth Hospital of Haarlem,” is a quintessential Dutch image of dutiful civic leaders.
And representing the middle class are the gents in “The Syndics of the Amsterdam Goldsmiths Guild,” by Thomas de Keyser, a similarly engaging group portrait of successful craftsmen shown with a sampling of their luxury goods. A more everyday scene comes in Isaak Koedijk’s “Barber Surgeon,” a smaller painting in which the subject attends to the wounded foot of a patient in an office filled with a rather mesmirizing collection of objects.
Some of the most stirring moments and images come in the middle of the exhibit, where the lives of women are represented in atmospheric scenes by Pieter de Hooch and others. Also there, the lower classes are introduced — the beggars, the working poor, the utterly defeated. There’s some brutal reality along with a sympathetic humanity, as in a portrait of a fishwife at work or the 10 men behind a wall in Jan van Biljert’s “Portraits of the Men from the St. Job’s Inn in Utrecht Collecting Alms.”
Some of the realist images of lives battered in the shadows might put you in mind of the Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans.
Scenes of revelry, drunkenness, the maritime economy, “Street Musicians at the Door” (a sublime piece by Jacob Ochtervelt from the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum) and even the occasional reference to racial difference complete the exhibit’s lesson in class consciousness.
The beauty of painting in the so-called Golden Age of Dutch art is undeniable and nicely represented. (It’s a ticketed show, generally $12 for adults, free for children 12 and younger.)
As you exit, you might not exactly be feeling the Bern, nor is it required. Nevertheless you will have had a meaningful encounter with some high points of European art and many opportunities to meditate on life then and now. It reminds us that wealth and the lack of it remain one of our society’s most fundamental challenges.