Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer

As usual, I didn’t make it to the latest big exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts till the next-to-last weekend, on a rainy Sunday where everyone else in the city seemed to have the same idea.

It was great, although the crowds made it a bit exhausting.  They wouldn’t let you take photographs, so here are images from the Internet.

Here was my favorite Rembrandt, “The Ship-Builder and His Wife”:

I like paintings where you’re not quite sure what’s going on.  This is almost always true of Vermeer paintings.  There were two Vermeers in the exhibit.  Here is “Lady Writing a Letter”:

Is she thinking about her next sentence?  Is she looking at someone?

And here is Vermeer’s “The Astronomer”:

I’ve seen both of these Vermeers before, in Washington and Paris, so I didn’t add to my Vermeer life list.

My favorite painting at the exhibition was this one by Pieter de Hooch, “The Courtyard of a House in Delft”:

Which reminds one of Vermeer’s similar painting, “Little Street”, viewing Delft houses from the street rather than from the courtyard:

Here is an interesting essay comparing both of these great paintings:

Vermeer’s Street in Delft is a greater painting than de Hooch’s, but far harder to write about. Where de Hooch is essentially a moralising painter, an artist for whom images define correct or incorrect social behaviour, Vermeer’s ethical credentials have always seemed somewhat suspect. Reticent, forever withholding or obstructing easy reading of his pictures, Vermeer remains a thoroughly enigmatic artist.

He appraises the houses that are his subject in Street in Delft not from the back but from the front, and at a greater distance than de Hooch in his Courtyard. Although Vermeer’s picture includes genre-like details – the two children in front of the gabled house to the right, playing knucklebones; the woman sewing in the doorway; the other woman, seen through the open doorway to the right, bending over a tub – their diminished scale robs them of the aura, so strong in the de Hooch, of role models, figures meant in some way to instruct. Their faces, moreover, are left blank. This is possibly the most striking example of where Vermeer’s painting differs most fundamentally from de Hooch’s: namely in the daring quality of its realism, its intermittent, inconsistent, variable nature.

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