The new Rembrandt and Vermeer exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art explores class, gender and life in 17th century Netherlands

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is currently featuring an exhibition entitled “Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.” This exhibition is the newest addition to a growing number of art exhibitions and events the museum is hosting this year.

“Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” is an extended exhibition in the back of the Bloch building on the Nelson-Atkins grounds. The entirety of the exhibit is divided into four distinct sections: Upper Class, Middle Class, Lower Class and “Where the Classes Meet.” Every piece in the exhibit is either a portrait or a depiction of reality within 17th century Netherlands. The spacious gallery has a color scheme that represents the hues associated with the different classes; a rich purple adorns the Upper Class section, the Middle Class is surrounded in blue and the Lower Class section is mostly cream-colored.

The Upper Class section greets visitors. A majority of the paintings picture Dutch royalty, including the princes of Orange. Descriptions for these paintings include the phrases “elegance and grace” and “princely virtue.” If the paintings don’t depict the subject alone, they offer a glimpse into the royal court. There are many paintings that portray stately carriage rides with wives and family or depictions of the royal palaces. A fact about the paintings that is easy to grasp is the size of the paintings commissioned by upper class patrons. The size of the painting directly signifies wealth and status. The amount of the subject’s body shown is also indicative of wealth; a full-length portrait of a royal or nobleman would have cost substantially more than a bust portrait.

Another interesting aspect of the Upper Class section is the presence of African children in the portraiture. These African people are more so a device to emphasize wealth. African servants in these paintings are more a generic stand-in than actual representations of people who worked for the families. The perceived exoticness of African people made it a status symbol to have an African servant.

There is not much of a distinction in painting style between the Upper and Middle Class sections, but there is a definite change in the subject matter. Middle Class pieces reflect more of the daily work within cities and villages; the paintings portray middle class professions. From notaries to bread makers to tailors to goldsmiths, this section of the exhibit offers a more realistic view of the Netherlands in the time of Rembrandt and Vermeer.

Another noticeable difference between the upper and middle classes in this exhibit is the importance of women within each social structure. Upper class women are portrayed as docile and passive, painted only for materialistic purposes of her husband or father. Women in the middle class are shown as much more independent. The painting entitled “Grocery Shop” by Gerrit Dou depicts a woman running what appears to be a grocery store while younger women help with the customers. Women in the Netherlands during this time did have the ability to possess menial capital, which meant potentially investing in a store front, as is shown in this painting.

There is a tangible change moving from the Middle Class to the Lower Class section. The paintings lose the realism shown in the pieces in the previous two sections. The people in the lower class were mainly hard laborers. Many pieces in this section portray these people in a less refined and almost frenetic way; the paintings appear to be sketched, meant to show “uncleanliness.” Some paintings show the nuances of country life, while others depict sailors and fishermen at work in the seas. Those within the lower class were mainly destitute, which indicates that the artists were not paid to depict these scenes. The exhibit emphasizes how unique it is to have so many paintings illustrating the lives of the lower class.

The last section is a combination of the previous three sections of the exhibit. “Where the Classes Meet” features paintings that demonstrate all three aspects of Dutch class structure in the 1600s. The marketplace is the most common theme within these paintings because it was the central part of Dutch cities during that period. Paintings show the middle class bakers and fishermen selling their goods to middle and upper class families, while those within the lower class sit begging.

Overall, this exhibit is in depth and caught my attention immediately. The story the exhibit tells through the social classes connects the paintings in a new way. The last section, “Where the Classes Meet,” is a wonderful culmination of the theme of every piece found in previous sections.

“Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” will be displayed the Nelson-Atkins until May 29. Entrance into the exhibit is $12 for adults and $6 with a valid student ID. Other ongoing exhibits include “Through the Lens: Visions of African-American Experience, 1950-1970” and “Unconventional Clay: Engaged in Change,” all of which are free to the public.

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