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Making Vermeer look prim

A new show of Dutch painting in Boston revels in earthly prizes and passions

George Pendle | November 9th 2015

Black clothes are generally considered both sober and slimming. Yet despite the reams of inky cloth on view in “Class Distinctions”, a superb exhibition of Dutch painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the opulence and corpulence of those depicted are not hidden one jot. Take, for instance, the jowls of burgomaster Jan van Duren that droop pendulously above his white-platter collar in Gerard ter Borch’s portrait. The painting initially seems somewhat austere: the burgomaster – the principal magistrate of a city – is kept company only by a table and a hat. Yet somehow the portrait oozes satisfactory contentment. Pendent eyes stare out impassively from a frizz of cocker spaniel hair. His right arm rests on his belly in a manner somewhere between covetousness and fondness. An ocean of black fabric sweeps and undulates around his body, both obscuring his girth and, at the same time, revealing it. And then, beneath a pair of surprisingly slim legs, just the prettiest pair of black shoes you could imagine. Square-toed and bowed, with tan soles, their welt picked out in white, they complete the burgomaster like the decorative paper frills on the legs of a roast turkey.

Such immodest modesty abounds in this exhibition, which has been simply but effectively split into three sections, each one about a different social class. The titles of some of those portrayed might be unfamiliar, but the hierarchy is immediately recognisable, from stadholders and regents through guildsmen and almoners to, finally, the poor, whose name never seems to change. They date from the Dutch Republic’s Golden Age, when Holland was at the forefront of international trade and urbanising swiftly without the hindrance of an absolute monarch. Artists, too, were spreading their wings, having finally been freed from church patronage by secular wealth. Now, instead of crosses and angels and the paraphernalia of piety, they could paint the accoutrements of success. Satin clothes, black servants, horses, spaniels, nurses: the same signifiers of nobility pop up again and again, although they are often more visible in the portraits of social-climbing merchants than in those of the nobles themselves.

One of the highlights of the show is Bartholomeus van der Helst’s 1654 portrait of the textile trader Abraham del Court and his wife. It is a superbly balanced painting: he is dressed in black, his wife is in white. He has white tassels on his shirt, she has black bows in her hair. He holds an empty hat, she a pink rose. However, it is the wife’s dress that really takes it to another level, a shimmering marvel that holds an almost hallucinogenic quality, offset only by the precise definition of her pearls and gleaming brocade. What better way for someone in the rag trade to impress friends and attract business than by having such a vivid depiction of his product?

Similarly lustrous and socially expedient is Michiel van Mierevelt’s portrait of Maurits, Prince of Orange. This shows the prince in gleaming gold armour, his helmet bedecked in sensual red feathers and his beard as fine as spun sugar. It’s a perfect political portrait that announces to the world Maurits’s wealth, courage and glamour all at once. George Osborne in a safety helmet it is not.

“Interior of an Inn”, 1630, by Adriaen Brouwer

But while many of these paintings served a promotional purpose, the artists that painted them were not simply sycophants licking the hand that fed. Rembrandt’s life-size portrait of the powerful financier Andries de Graeff was so disliked by its subject that he refused to pay for it. Perhaps it was because of its overly casual pose, its florid complexion, or the eccentric depiction of one of De Graeff’s gloves tossed to the ground as if he had just challenged the viewer to a duel. Whatever the reason, Rembrandt was never commissioned to paint anyone as socially formidable again.

Amid all this emphasis on money, fashion and self-regard, the two Vermeer paintings that appear in the exhibition strike a peculiar chord. “The Astronomer” (1668) and “A Lady Writing” (c.1665, top) depict two wealthy subjects. But whereas most of the other paintings are clearly anchored by corporeal concerns, the Vermeers seem to float and shimmer above the fray. In “A Lady Writing”, a woman in fur stares at the viewer in the midst of her task, but her face is hazy and soft, almost angelic compared to the burgeoning chins and protuberant noses that surround it. Both the lady and the astronomer seem untouched by the pursuit of earthly prizes and passions. Indeed, next to the paintings in the show’s last section – such as Adriaen Brouwer’s jolly grotesquerie, “Interior of an Inn” (1630, pictured), in which people drink, vomit and pass out, or Jacob Backer’s wonderful “Half-Naked Woman with a Coin” (1636), in which a prostitute matter-of-factly shows off her breasts – Vermeer seems rather prim. Brouwer can’t touch him for technical sophistication, but rarely has Vermeer’s extraordinary touch seemed so unearthly, so bloodless, so inhuman.

“The Syndics of the Amsterdam Goldsmiths Guild”, 1627, by Thomas de Keyser

The fact is that there is something familiar about these moustachioed Dutchmen and their pallid wives that is not there in the Vermeers – an almost palpable egotism. Look at the composition of Thomas de Keyser’s group portrait, “The Syndics of the Amsterdam Goldsmiths Guild” (1627, pictured). This picture of a guild’s leading officers depicts four men – two seated, two standing – casually holding the tools of their trade. One of the standing men bends over, his hand resting on the chair in front of him. He appears to be trying to squeeze into the painting’s frame as if it was a photograph he was posing for. If you were to take away the ruffs and the jerkins and replace them with button-downs and hoodies you’d have the founders of a tech start-up, or the hipster investors behind a new Brooklyn distillery. De Keyser’s painting is a blueprint for the self-satisfied, mock-casual corporate photograph that can be found in company brochures and the “About Us” section of websites.

This whole show is filled with expressions of human vanity and pride that, unlike black satin, have remained au courant. It depicts a society of complacent plutocrats, social climbers and massive wealth inequality. It feels very much like a picture of today.

Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until January 18th

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