Exploring social stratification in Dutch art, an interview with Rima Girnius
Frans Hals. Gerrit Dou. Rembrandt. Johannes Vermeer. These are some of the top names in Dutch art, and this spring you have the opportunity to view them at the Nelson-Atkins’ exhibition Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. This groundbreaking exhibition, curated by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, explores the distinctions between the upper, middle and lower classes in 17th-century Dutch society as represented through the art of the time.
We sat down recently with Rima Girnius, Associate Curator of European Painting and a specialist in Early Modern German and Dutch art, to discuss the exhibition’s highlights and get a little background context to help visitors better enjoy the exhibition.
Kansas City Spaces: What historical context do visitors need to know about the exhibition?
Rima Girnius: In general people have seen the Dutch Republic as quintessentially middle class, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. When they arrested their independence from the Habsburg Crown, they developed a government system where the power was shared by an elite group of wealthy merchants and noblemen instead of housed in one person; it was an oligarchy. There was social stratification with an unequal distribution in wealth, prestige and power. It wasn’t widely middle class. The upper classes had a very different lifestyle than the middle class.
KCS: And that’s what the exhibition is exploring—the differences between the classes, and the relationship between art and society?
RG: The exhibition is ground-breaking in the way it reveals social hierarchies in Dutch culture; it explores how paintings convey different ranks in status. It might be the format of the painting; for example, is the portrait life-size? Also look at how a person is represented in an image: are they working or are they engaged in pleasure? Does the work involve manual labor? In representations of the upper class we often see nobles sitting in sumptuous, beautiful homes that are adorned with precious works of art; they’re generally shown not doing a lot except writing letters or playing music. When you look at the middle classes they are almost always shown working or with attributes of their work.
The location, the setting, what type of clothes they wear—these are other indicators of class. Clothing was expensive—it was a commodity. A lot of different artists paid a lot of attention to describing the beauty of a satin gown or a crisp linen shirt in their work. Linen was time-consuming to produce and clean. To have a lot of linen shirts indicated a higher social status. There were also more subtle ways that social class is conveyed, such as posture. Are they standing up right or slouching? Are their legs open and relaxed?
The paintings are complemented by 45 decorative art objects from the time period, which provide tangible expression to the differences in peoples’ lives. For example, we have a variety of different linen tablecloths on display; the upper classes might have had elaborate designs, while the lower classes had very simple designs. These are the little details that visitors can look out for. What objects were at these peoples’ disposal? Looking at these objects, you can imagine someone grasping for a goblet—or see how different these lifestyles truly were.
The important thing to note is that art became more accessible to a broad range of society at this time. The portraits were commissioned for purchase by the upper and middle classes. Images of the lower classes didn’t necessarily represent the ways peasants behaved—they often appeared boorish in their behavior—and that’s because these images were commissioned and purchased by upper classes. While we have often marveled at the ability of Dutch art to render and capture light and depict natural appearances, it’s important to keep in mind that artists made decisions and had to take into account their patrons’ wishes and prejudices.
KCS: What do you hope visitors to this museum will take away?
RG: I want people to know what an amazing selection of art this is and what a great opportunity it is for them to see these great masterpieces firsthand. The exhibition features paintings that have been gathered from public and private institutions, including museums in the Netherlands, the Louvre in Paris, the Met in New York and the National Gallery in D.C. These are all really prominent museums and collections, and this show is a wonderful opportunity for people to see these great masterpieces without leaving Kansas City. The exhibition also includes a Vermeer; that’s a very important point. While we’ve had a number of Dutch shows here, this will mark the first time a Vermeer will be in Kansas City. And as there are only about 34 paintings by Vermeer that we know of, that’s pretty spectacular.
Reflecting Class in the Age of Vermeer and Rembrandt will be on exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins through May 29. A number of special presentations will be held in conjunction with the exhibition, including a talk by curator Kate Crawford on April 29 titled “Reflecting on the 17th-Century Dutch Influence on American Scenes of Everyday Life.”