Monday, November 30, 2015

Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts at the Morgan Library & Museum

Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts 

Morgan Library and Museum
October 30, 2015 through January 18, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Vive la différence! To many, these words embody the passionate commitment of the French people to individualism, to the unique differences that define the character of each person. 

For Henri Matisse, the meaning of " la différence" had an added significance. Embracing "la différence" enables an artist to depict a character, a scene or a theme in a way that represents a personal conception of reality. While doing so, the artist may ignore or contradict the "here and now" details of superficial existence - and yet achieve a vision of transcendence. 

"Exactitude," Matisse famously proclaimed, "is not truth."

Pierre Matisse, Henri Matisse in the Bois de Boulogne (ca. 1931–1932)

The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City is currently displaying an exhibit of Matisse's unconventional book illustrations. Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts is the second Matisse exhibit of note to appear during 2015 in New York City. Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs was mounted by MOMA to huge acclaim earlier in the year. Graphic Passion is a smaller, more focused exhibit but equally brilliant. 

Most of the works on view in Graphic Passion were collected by an art loving couple, Frances and Michael Baylson, who donated their collection to the Morgan in 2010.

Matisse possessed the singular ability to create images that often had only a thin, barely recognizable connection to the original source. Graphic Passion surveys the illustrations which Matisse created to grace the pages of limited edition books of a type called livre d'artiste.

Henri Matisse, Dessins: Thèmes et variations, 1943 

Other great artists besides Matisse illustrated livre d'artiste. Picasso, Braque, Miró and other "old masters" of Modernism created memorable images to complement the literary content of these books. 

"To complement" is indeed the appropriate verb to use when describing the artistic process involved in a livre d'artiste. As the name suggests, these books recognized the primacy of the artist. In a livre d'artiste, the text takes on a secondary role to the picture. 

In the case of his art work for Pasiphaé, Chant de Minos, Matisse created images in the traditional mode of book illustration. For this livre d'artiste, published in 1944, Matisse closely correlated his pictures with the poems of Henri de Montherlant. These poems rework the story from Greek mythology of the queen, cursed by the gods, who gives birth to the dreaded Minotaur. Matisse used a form of engraving on linoleum to produce white lined images on a black background. This worked brilliantly to evoke the eroticism and horror of this ancient tale.

Henri Matisse, Pasiphaé, Chant de Minos, 1944 

Matisse seldom repeated his success with Pasiphaé of closely matching image and text. The Morgan exhibition commentary - always enlightening, but especially well-done for Graphic Passion - affirms that for the most part Matisse regarded his livre d'artiste illustrations as independent works of art.

Usually ... Matisse preferred to maintain a respectful distance from the text, which he believed should not have to be “completed” by his visual interpretation. He thought that illustration should be decorative in the best sense of the word, a separate and “parallel” form of artistic expression acknowledging and complementing the achievements of the author.

When obscenity charges were withdrawn in U.S. courts against Ulysses by James Joyce, Matisse signed a contract in 1934 to illustrate an expensive American edition of the book. Matisse kept such a "respectful distance" from the text that many were perplexed, Joyce included, as to the effect on readers.

One of the Ulysses pictures, on view in the Morgan exhibit, illustrates the serendipitous route which Matisse followed to create his images. Matisse chose a female circus performer he had witnessed at the Concert Mayol in Paris - who walked down a flight of steps on her hands - for his model in the brothel scene of Joyce's Ulysses

Henri Matisse, preliminary study of Circe, 1934

Joyce had earlier agreed to Matisse evoking the Odyssey in his drawings rather than directly representing episodes in Ulysses. Joyce grasped Matisse's idea, as the scene representing the alluring Circe is close enough to what transpires in a brothel. 

The American publisher of the new edition, William Macy, however, was upset. With Joyce's text difficult enough to grasp, he felt that the pictures should make it easier, not harder to comprehend the book.

Matisse would not change his approach, even when Macy initially withheld payment.

Vive la différence!

Matisse worked on over fifty book design projects between 1912 and 1952. A number of these illustrated the works of writers whom Matisse cherished, especially poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. 

A devoted reader of classic French poetry, Matisse was involved in a major publishing venture to illustrate Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal. One of the poems in Les fleurs du mal contained the line, “Luxe, calme et volupté" (Luxury, peace, and pleasure), that provided the title for the famous 1904 painting by Matisse. 

This livre d'artiste, pairing Baudelaire and Matisse, should have been a triumph easily brought to success. Instead, it was a trial from the start. 

Originally planned before the Second World War, the project suffered from repeated miscues and mishaps, mostly related to the war. Matisse was unable to start working in earnest until his beloved daughter Marguerite, arrested by the Gestapo, had been liberated in 1944.

Matisse eventually matched spare portrait lithographs with a selection of Baudelaire's poems from Les fleurs du mal. The portraits are mostly of youthful women, Matisse's models, including his devoted assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya, a refugee from Russia. Despite the current of eroticism that flows through the poems of Baudelaire, Matisse's young women radiate simplicity and beauty. 

Henri Matisse, rejected cover design for Les fleurs du mal, 1946

For the cover illustration, to evoke the decadence and evil of the title of Baudelaire’s anthology, Matisse briefly considered an image of an octopus. Before it was discovered to be a shy and harmless creature (to humans) the octopus was viewed as a sinister menace. But Matisse changed his mind about the sea creature, substituting an amorphic, abstract design.

Neither youthful, unassuming women nor an octopus are characteristic elements of Les fleurs du mal. What was Matisse aiming at with these images? Perhaps the date of publication is a key to the mystery - 1947.

Matisse created these images for a new edition of Les fleurs du mal in the aftermath of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. How can an artist grapple with the crushing reality of evil or evoke ideals of beauty in the wake of such horrors?

"I have always thought," Matisse wrote "that a large part of a painting's beauty derives from the artist's combat with his own limited means of expression."

With this quote we have an answer for the difficult-to-fathom nature of the often mysterious works of art in the Morgan exhibit. Matisse aimed to overcome "his own limited means of expression" to summon the spirit, if not always the outward form, of his subjects.

The same year of Matisse's illustrations of Les fleurs du mal, 1947, also saw the publication of Jazz. This is the greatest Matisse livre d'artiste and one of the greatest of the genre.

The origin of Jazz can be traced to 1941 when Matisse was recuperating from surgery for abdominal cancer in 1941. Confined to his bed, Matisse began to "paint with scissors." He cut-out delicate designs from colored paper, a skill that may be traced back to the scissors-craft of his cloth-making ancestors in the north of France. These images were pinned to a  paper background (or sometimes the walls of Matisse's room) to form works of art of primal intensity.

It was a high-point for me to go the recent MOMA exhibition and view Matisse's The Fall of Icarus (1943) with the pins still inserted. It was no less inspirational to see the prints that were made of Icarus, first  in 1945 for the French art magazine, Verve, and then as Plate VIII for Jazz

Henri Matisse, Icarus, plate VIII, Jazz, 1947

Icarus may seem an odd choice to be included in Jazz. As we will shortly see, some of the images Matisse created for Jazz are evocations of joy and exhilaration. Matisse's Icarus in the 1943 cut-out and the 1947 pochoir or fine-grade stencil print is another matter.

Matisse's Icarus is surrounded by bursting flashes of light, reminiscent of the "star shells" used to illuminate the battlefields of World War I. Icarus is not merely falling, wingless as in the ancient myth by flying too near the sun. He is reeling like a soldier hit by bullet. Here there is no sun melting his wings, just jagged gashes of flame which reveal his death throws. 

Henri Matisse, The Tobaggan, plate XX, Jazz, 1947

It's more than a bit disconcerting to look at the female figure sliding, head over heels in The Tobaggan, Plate XX of Jazz, and then glance back to the dying fall of Icarus. But the more time that one spends studying Jazz, the realization grows that pleasure and pain are balanced in almost equal measure.  

Jazz is often said to have a circus theme. If so, it's a tight wire act without a safety net for our emotions. One of the most lyrical plates in Jazz shows a pair of jaunty circus horses pulling a colorfully decorated cart. It is not a circus wagon bringing  performers to the Big Top. Rather, Plate X shows a hearse. The high-stepping circus horses are carrying the clown Pierrot to his grave.

The time span covered by Graphic Passion runs from 1912 to 1952. Yet, it is the last decade that really counts. 

The 1940's were a tough time to be a Frenchman or an artist, or just a person of conscience and vision. Matisse was all of these, as well as being elderly and in poor health. Taken in unison, these factors did not defeat him. Instead, Matisse rose to the challenge. He embraced the role of champion of civilization at a time when it was not certain it would survive the Nazi war on culture. 

In 1942, having recuperated somewhat from his cancer operation, Matisse selected the poems of the French poet of the late Middle Ages, Charles d’Orleans (1394-1465)  as the subject of a livre d'artiste.

Henri Matisse, Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans, 1950

A great aristocrat with links to the royal family of France, Charles d’Orleans found that his blue blood and gilded armor did not protect him from the vicissitudes of life during the Hundred Years War. In 1415, he was pulled, dazed and battered, from under a pile of corpses at the Battle of Agincourt. He spent the next quarter of a century as a prisoner in England during which he wrote his immortal poetry.

Matisse was moved by the life and poetry of Charles d’Orleans.The experience of a poet who had triumphed over the horrors of war in the fifteenth century greatly appealed to an artist who did likewise in the twentieth century. Matisse not only did illustrations for Poèmes de Charles d’Orleans but copied the poems in a flowing calligraphic script that was reproduced  by his publishers, Tériade, when this remarkable book was published in 1950.

Matisse had but one decade of life left to him as he labored on Poèmes de Charles d’Orleans, Jazz and Les fleurs du mal. Working against the hourglass of mortality, Matisse summoned a lifetime of experience to create his livre d'artiste images.

Thanks to this wonderful exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, we are privileged to see how the aging Matisse created illustrations of profound beauty and power. Graphic Passion leaves little doubt that Matisse's book images can truly be described as being immortal - if any work of art can ever be so.                

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the  Morgan Library and Museum, New York City

Introductory Image:          
Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Circus, pochoir, plate II in Jazz (1947). Courtesy of Frances and Michael Baylson © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Pierre Matisse (1900–1989), photograph of Henri Matisse in the Bois de Boulogne (ca. 1931–1932). Gift of the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, 1997, The Morgan Library & Museum. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Dessins: Thèmes et variations ... précédés de “Matisse-en-France” par Aragon. Paris: Martin Fabiani, 1943. Frances and Michael Baylson Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), linocut illustration and initial in Henry de Montherlant (1895–
1972), Pasiphaé, Chant de Minos (Les Crétois).Paris: Martin Fabiani, 1944. Frances and Michael Baylson Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), preliminary study for the etching in the Circe chapter, Ulysses
(1934). Collection of The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), rejected cover design for Les fleurs du mal (1946). Collection
of The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights
Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Icarus, pochoir, plate VIII, Jazz (1947). Courtesy of Frances and Michael Baylson © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Le Toboggan, pochoir, plate XX in Jazz (1947). Courtesy of Frances and Michael Baylson © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), frontispiece and title page, Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans. Paris: Tériade Éditeur, 1950. Frances and Michael Baylson Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks

Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks

Delmonico Books & Prestel/$65/184 pages
Reviewed by Ed Voves

If I were asked to select one artist to represent the American experience or what Robert Hughes called "American visions,"  I would pick the photographer, Edward S. Curtis. 

Pages and pages of explanation for my choice would never suffice. But even a brief perusal of the new book, Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, will quickly confirm Curtis as a defining genius of American expression.

Edward S. Curtis was the self-appointed champion of the Native American peoples of North America. Curtis, born in 1868 in Wisconsin and reared in Minnesota, was a bona fide Western pioneer. Like earlier frontiersmen, Daniel Boone and David Crockett, Curtis had an empathy for Native Americans which enabled him to see them as human beings rather than as savages.  

With his camera, Curtis recorded the traditional way of life of tribes from the Arctic Circle to the Rio Grande. The result of his determination to pursue this challenging - and occasionally dangerous - task is the subject of this compelling  book  published by Delmonico and Prestel.

The photographs comprising Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks represent the "best of the best" taken by Curtis.  In the multi-volume The North American Indian, the career-defining work of Curtis, there were 2,234 photographs richly produced in photogravure. The quality of the One Hundred Masterworks photos is worthy of the now legendary earlier effort, produced in a limited run of 300 copies of each volume.

It needs to be highlighted and underscored that Curtis, a largely self-taught photographer, was not only an artist of the first rank. He was also a driven, obsessive picture taker and a methodical ethnographic researcher. Curtis was known as "Shadow Catcher" to the Native Americans he photographed. Between 1896 and 1927, Curtis captured 40,000 "shadows," a staggering 40,000 photographs.

Edward S.Curtis, Canyon de Chelly- Navaho, 1904 

The law of photographic averages or being "at the right spot at the right time," however, does not account for astounding images like Canyon de Chelly - Navaho, 1904, or Sioux Mother and Child, taken a year later. Curtis entered into a state of spiritual communion with those he photographed. There are 40,000 souls in the pictures Curtis took - and the soul of America.

In some ways, Curtis was indeed "the right man at the right spot at the right time." 

Six years before Curtis began his quest, the last "stand" of Native American resistance to the loss of their independence took place in the infamous "battle" at Wounded Knee, South Dakota on December 23, 1890. Three years later, at a meeting of the American Historical Association, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his "frontier thesis" which explained U.S. history in terms of the westward expansion of Anglo-Saxon society from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

Where the original inhabitants of North America were to fit into the post-frontier scheme of the U.S. was a loaded question. Many people expected the "Red Man" to simply vanish. Rapid demographic decline among Native Americans in the years following Wounded Knee seemed to confirm this. In 1900, there were only 248,253 Native Americans living in the continental U,S., while the estimate in 1800 had been 600,000, almost certainly an under count. 

Edward S.Curtis, Sioux Mother and Child, 1905

Given the explosive rate of population increase in the U.S. by natural birth alone during the nineteenth century, the days of the Native Americans as a separately identifiable racial group seemed numbered. Even Curtis, for all his spiritual kinship with Native Americans, half-expected this to happen. Some of his most haunting images have titles like The Vanishing Race - Navaho, 1904.

The "Red Man" did not vanish. Thanks in large measure to Curtis, Native American culture was documented and to a considerable degree preserved. A series of richly produced photographic volumes, The North American Indian, introduced Curtis' stunning images to collectors and the public beginning in 1907.

In just over thirty years, Edward Curtis conducted a single-handed campaign to save some vestiges of the traditional way of life of Native Americans from oblivion. Adept at still photography and motion picture camera work, Curtis created imagery that is enchantingly beautiful and historically accurate. With grudging financial backing from J.P. Morgan and the emotional support of President Theodore Roosevelt, Curtis forged ahead. 

Edward S.Curtis, Self--portrait with baleen whale, Pacific Northwest, ca.1914

Against incredible odds, Curtis succeeded in publishing the last of the lavishly produced photo books in 1930. Publication was literally in the "nick of time" because many of the "old ways"  of the tribes had been undermined and effaced by U.S. Government agents and Christian missionaries in the years since Curtis commenced his venture in 1896. 

It was a bittersweet triumph for Curtis. The Great Depression began in earnest just as the final volumes of his magnum opus came off the press. Curtis had beggared himself in the process, wrecked his marriage and endangered his health.  Few people had the money to purchase his books or copies of his photos - or even cared to. 

Curtis scratched out a living for himself doing still photography and some motion picture work for the Hollywood studios. He worked on The Plainsman starring Gary Cooper, one of the rare adult Westerns of the 1930's. Curtis tried his hand at some wildcat mining schemes and died in obscurity in 1952. 

Curtis and The North American Indian nearly vanished from collective memory. Then in 1971, the Morgan Library in New York City mounted an exhibition of Curtis' works, based on the financial support which J.P. Morgan had provided. Scholars took note and slowly Curtis' astonishing achievement began to be realized.

The present volume and the related museum exhibits of Edward Curtis' "masterworks" are the result of the devoted study of one of these scholars. Christopher Cardozo is the leading contemporary authority on Curtis. Cardozo has created an impressive collection of the photographs taken by Curtis, authored or edited eight books about Curtis and curated major exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world.

The North American Indian was notable for Curtis' scholarly text as well as his stunning photographs. The same is true of Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks. Cardozo and fellow historian, A.D. Coleman, have provided a brilliant assessment of Curtis as a photographer, ethnographer and environmentalist. 

Edward S.Curtis, An Oasis in the Badlands,1905

Coleman  notes perceptively that Curtis' photographic style occasionally reflected the Pictorialist school of photography and Alfred Stieglitz's journal Camera Work, both influential during the early 1900's. Certainly, the deliberately romantic poses of a small sample of the photos in The North American Indian like An Oasis in the Badland - Sioux, 1905 showed that Curtis was a man of his own time. 

Yet Cardozo cogently argues that "Curtis' pictures transcend by far the merely informational and illustrative: they can stand alone as autonomous, fully realized works of visual art." 

The importance of the individuality of the subjects of Curtis' photos cannot be stressed too much. The Native Americans who posed for Curtis emerge from his pictures as "autonomous, fully realized" human beings. This is in contrast to the pseudo-scientific titles that Curtis occasionally bestowed on some of the photos like "Lummi type" or "Kalispel type." Perhaps, he did this to satisfy the sociologists of his era, fixated on finding representative samples of the world's inhabitants.

Edward S.Curtis, Lummi Type,1899

Yet, when you stop to examine the strong, sensitive face of this matriarch of the Lummi tribe, you realize the absurdity of any attempt to categorize human beings as "typical." This woman came from Curtis' home ground, on the coast of Washington State. She was in essence a neighbor. One can only wonder why he did not record her name or devise a romantic-sounding title for her as did for others.

Whatever the reason, the unique, God-given self-hood of this Native American woman rips asunder the straight jacket of categorization in any shape or form. And you have to give Curtis part of the credit for this. Curtis, a master of the techniques of photography, was equally adept at capturing  the spiritual essence of his subjects and conveying this to us, the viewer.

Louise Erdrich and Eric Jolly both emphasize this shared experience in their essays in Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks.  It should be noted that both are Native Americans. Jolly writes:

Edward S.Curtis, A Walpi Man, 1903

Look into the eyes of Qahatika girl and A Hopi Man and recognize that they are looking back at us across time. These are haunting images that depict pride, strength and a sense of a future, that give us hope for the generations to follow ... As you experience the stories that emanate from these photographs, you have a rare opportunity to connect across time and generations to the heart and soul of these people. In so doing, you too may become stewards of their story. In the end, this work is breathtakingly, though simply, a collective act of stewardship.

This brilliant insight is really the best way - perhaps the only way - to interpret Curtis' achievement. 

Curtis, remarkable individualist though he was, helped to create a bond of empathy between racial and ethnic groups that was held by many in his time to be unbridgeable. And this achievement is rendered even more extraordinary by the way that he fostered an "intensity of regard" between generations, past, present and to come, as Louise Erdrich also wisely discerns.

Perhaps without quite knowing it, Edward S. Curtis, the last pioneer from the Old West, was the first to explore an America without frontiers, an America whose people are truly "from the many ... one." 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of Delmonico Books and Prestel Publishing Co.

Introductory Image: Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks 2015 (cover) Image credit:  Delmonico Books and Prestel Publishing

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), Canyon de Chelly- Navaho, 1904 Photogravure 12" x 16", Southwest

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), Sioux Mother and Child, 1905, Platinum, 7 11/16" x 5 7/16", Great Plains

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), Edward S.Curtis, (Self--portrait with baleen whale, Pacific Northwest), ca.1914, Toned Gelatin Silver, Northwest

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), An Oasis in the Badlands,1905, Photogravure 12" x 16", Great Plains

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), Lummi Type,1899, Photogravure, 16" x 12", Northwest

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), A Walpi Man, 1903, Platinum, 15 3/16" x 10 1/2", Southwest

Monday, November 16, 2015

Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts

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

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

October 11, 2015 - January 18, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Occasionally, when I walk into the galleries of an art museum, I get the sensation that I've stepped onto the pages of an art history book. That feeling often strikes me in MOMA where so many of the great works of early Modernism are displayed in close proximity.

A recent visit to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) provided a similar feeling of crossing a portal of time. The pages I walked onto, however, dealt more with the realm of history than of art. A consciousness of past time occupied the foreground here, matters of foreshortening and brush stroke being pushed a bit  to the side.

That is not to say that the superlative exhibition at the MFA, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer lacks masterpieces of art. Of these, there are plenty. The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer, on loan from the Louvre, is but one of the celebrated Old Master icons on view.

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, 1668

The theme of Class Distinctions, however, takes a different path than most other treatments of the Dutch Golden Age. Previous exhibits have often stressed the innovations and individualism of the great Dutch artists.

Class Distinctions examines how the revolution in art in the Netherlands provides insight into the social make-up of  the United Provinces during the seventeenth century. The Netherlands, like all of Europe in the 1600's, was divided into tightly circumscribed classes. Significantly, the MFA exhibit brilliantly reveals that interaction, not exclusiveness, was the keynote of Dutch society during that troubled century.

The exhibit also testifies to the connection between the growing tolerance and prosperity of Dutch society and the receptiveness of its citizens  to the arts. To the amazement and incredulity of the envious English, art works were purchased and cherished by all but the poorest Dutch citizens.

"God created the world," as the old proverb states, "but the Dutch made Holland."

And the same was true of the art of the Dutch Golden Age.

Interaction and cooperation enabled the Dutch, beginning in the early Middle Ages, to dredge marshland, build flood barriers and convert marginal land into pasture and farmland. In short, to "make" Holland. These same principles of conduct are apparent throughout the exhibition. Although the first three galleries are devoted to separate classes, the works of art reflect the binding ties of obligation and service which held the United Provinces together.

The first  exhibition gallery is devoted to the upper classes. Despite being surrounded by  other magnificent art works, Frans Hals' dynamic group-portrait, Regents of the St. Elisabeth Hospital of Haarlem, exerts an almost magnetic force.

Frans Hals, Regents of the St. Elisabeth Hospital of Haarlem, 1641

Hals painted Regents in 1641, a year before Rembrandt's fabled Militia Company of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, misnamed the Nightwatch. Like Rembrandt, Hals shows an animated scene of upper class officials performing their civic duty. Unpaid - except in honor and prestige -these Regents undertook vital tasks, insuring that the poor received effective aid and that the lid on dissent was kept securely fastened.

Group portraits were a major artistic innovation of the Dutch Golden Age. Portraits of regents boards were a major sub-genre. According to art scholar Eric Ketelaar, no less than 33 group portraits of regents boards were painted in Amsterdam alone during the peak years of the Golden Age, 1617 - 1686. 

The St. Elisabeth Hospital was in Haarlem, Holland's brewery capital. Most of the Regents of St. Elisabeth Hospital were wealthy brewers and therefore initally of the middle class. Administering to the poor provided them with the credentials to move up in rank, joining the ruling elite of the United Provinces.

Hals painted group portraits of female regents, as did his rival, Johannes Verspronck. It is a pity that one of these portraits of regentessen could not have been included in Class Distinctions. It is virtually the only significant omission in this brilliantly curated exhibit.

Another outstanding work in the first gallery highlights the military  and diplomatic effort needed to protect Dutch society during the Golden Age. Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange, painted by Anthony van Dyck, about 1631–32, shows the Stadholder or chief executive of the United Provinces.

The title of Stadholder was a vestige of Hapsburg rule of the Netherlands, similar in rank to the viceroy who ruled Mexico for the Spanish crown. When the Netherlands revolted against the Spanish Hapsburgs in 1568, the position of Stadholder was maintained. 

With self-rule as the motivating force of the Dutch resistance to Spain, the power of the Stadholder might well have been reduced to ceremonial insignificance. The opposite was true. As Stadholder, Frederik Hendrik was the supreme military leader or kapitein-generaal but answerable to the Dutch legislature, the Estates General.

Anthony van Dyck, Frederik HendrikPrince of Orange, c.1631

The careworn face of Frederik Hendrik (1584-1647) reflects his difficult position. As Prince of Orange, he was a hereditary nobleman but also the leader of a republic battling for its freedom against mighty Spain. Frederik Hendrik spent his whole career fighting - and beating - the Spanish. He never wore fancy armor in combat as he does in van Dyck's portrait but this battle gear symbolizes his life of service to his county men.

The second - and the central - gallery of the exhibit deals with the broad social category that made the Dutch independence movement a viable enterprise. Ship builders and shop keepers, clergyman and tavern owners, lens makers and artists - all combined and cooperated to form the first recognizable middle class in a modern sense of the term.

With roots stretching back to the 1300's, the Dutch middle class had a degree of influence during the Golden Age that was unmatched by any other nation in Europe. As with the upper class regents and regentessen, the role of women in the contributions of the middle class is readily apparent as well.

Rembrandt's The Shipbuilder and his Wife depicts the interaction of Jan Rijcksen (1560/2-1637) with his wife, Griet Jans. They were a Roman Catholic couple and loyal citizens of the Dutch Republic. Rijcksen was the master ship builder of the Dutch East India Company. Rembrandt's painting, one of his early masterpieces, shows a preoccupied Rijcksen being handed a note by Griet Jans. 

Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Rijcksen and His Wife, Griet Jans, 1633

In Rembrandt's unforgettable work, Rijcksen looks up, perplexed and startled like an absent-minded professor who has just been reminded that his lecture began fifteen minutes ago. Griet Jans, by comparison, is a model of calm and efficiency.

It was a typical situation. Dutch men engaged in politics, war, commerce and science. Dutch women were left to run the homes and very often the family business affairs, thus keeping  the whole enterprise from crashing into ruin. 

Gerrit Dou, Grocery Shop, 1647

Gerrit Dou's Grocery Shop, dated to 1647,  and Adriaen van Ostade's The Fishwife (displayed in the gallery devoted to the Dutch lower class) likewise show the vital role of women in the day-to-day management of Dutch economic life. But women had an inspirational role as well, serving as guardians of what Simon Schama calls  "the moral geography" of the Dutch Republic.

Faced by the awesome, if brittle, power of Spain, followed later by French invasions under Louis XIV, the Dutch could not afford the luxury of always keeping their women at home. Yet the family hearth was of transcendent importance to a people fighting for their independence. Pieter de Hooch evoked the quiet, clean, peaceful atmosphere of the Dutch home in a series of memorable paintings like Interior with Women beside a Linen Cupboard, painted in 1663.

In de Hooch's painting, a mother and her elder daughter fold and store the family linen. A younger daughter pauses from playing with her hockey stick to watch. The wider world beckons beyond the vestibule or vorhuis of the home but the little girl is learning how the "moral geography" of the Dutch home - and the Dutch Republic - is maintained: by unremitting work and obsessive attention to detail. 

De Hooch's painting testifies to the personal toll that it took to "keep the home fires burning." This particular work is one of the last great family-themed works that he did. After 1663, de Hooch stopped painting scenes with children. Two of his own children died around that time, followed by his wife in 1667. Financial woe added to his anxiety, the art market all but collapsing during the 1660's. De Hooch began painting scenes of elegant ladies and dashing gentlemen, perhaps to entice wealthy clients. De Hooch's muse soon abandoned him and he died in an insane asylum in 1684.

Pieter de Hooch, Interior with Women beside a Linen Cupboard, 1663

Standing over the door frame in de Hooch's Interior with Women beside a Linen Cupboard is a curious figure. In his book, The Embarrassment of Riches, Schama identifies the peculiar statue as Mercury, god of commerce. Mercury is holding a bag of coins. Was this an admission by de Hooch of the financial pressures that menaced the "moral geography" of the Dutch home?

Whatever the relation of de Hooch's personal circumstances to the composition of his painting, the use of doorways and the vorhuis as a stage for pictorial drama appeared in other Dutch paintings as well. Jacob Ochtervelt used the door frame and vorhuis as a motif in a number of his paintings. It is the point where the lives of the well-to-do and laboring poor intersect.

Standing on the other side of the doorway in his painting (the introductory image of this review), Ochtervelt shows itinerant musicians. They are performing an impromptu concert for a middle class child and her nurse, with a reward in hand from the lady of the house. 

The charm of this wonderful painting should not obscure its serious theme. In this moment of shared humanity, we can see how the Dutch class system preserved both the lines of demarcation and communication between rich and poor. In this genre scene, we are made aware of how the United Provinces remained united.

Jan van Bijlert, Portraits of the Men from the St. Job Inn in Utrecht Collecting Alms, c.1630

The third and fourth galleries of Class Distinctions display numerous works that depict the lives of the poor or the ways that the social classes mingled, associated and worked together. Portraits of the Men from the St. Job Inn in Utrecht Collecting Alms by Jan van Bijlert is particularly noteworthy.

The fourth gallery has a surprise in store, even for art lovers like me who expected great things from Class Distinctions. Ronni Baer, the MFA curator who planned the exhibition, prepared a stunning mini-exhibit of three tables, each set with the dinnerware and table accouterments of the three Dutch classes during the 1600's. The pieces were meticulously selected from art collections from the Netherlands and the United States. 

I was transfixed by this ingenious and moving display of artifacts from the everyday lives of the Dutch people. It was like a door had been opened to the Golden Age and I was permitted to stand in the vorhuis to get a glimpse.

A contrast of the Upper & Lower Class table settings in the Class Distinctions Exhibit.

Ann and Graham Gund Gallery *Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It is impossible to give a true sense of this insightful display in an online review like this. By grouping photos of the upper and lower class table settings, I hope to enable the brilliantly orchestrated sense of contrast to be apparent. 

The Middle Class table setting in the Class Distinctions Exhibit.
Ann and Graham Gund Gallery *Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

With a more detailed view of the middle class setting, hopefully the feeling of kindred experience that this tableau engenders can be grasped as well.

This year has been extraordinarily rich in wonderful art exhibitions. I will not be so foolhardy as to pick an Academy Award-style "best exhibit" for 2015.  However, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer does deserve an extra word of praise.

Like Job Berckheyde's Baker, announcing that his baked goods are ready and waiting for rich and poor alike, the MFA exhibit sounds the trumpet of our common humanity. 

Job Berckheyde, The Baker, about 1681

Whether we wear an elegant lace ruff or a woolen scarf about our necks, we are all children of God. And like the Dutch folk of the Golden Age, we are all fed with the bread of life from God's table.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Introductory Image:     
Jacob Ochtervelt (Dutch, 1634–1682), Street Musicians at the Door, 1665 Oil on canvas, 68.6 x 57.2 cm (27 x 22 1/2 in.) (Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Eugene A. Perry in Memory of her mother, Mrs. Claude Kilpatrick 

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675), The Astronomer, 1668, Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 45.5 cm (20 1/4 x 18 in.)Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures 

Frans Hals (Dutch, 1581 to 1585-1666), Regents of the St. Elisabeth Hospital in Haarlem1641, Oil on canvas, 153 × 252 cm (60 1/4 × 99 1/4 in.) Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem 

Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599–1641), Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange, about 1631–32, Oil on canvas, 114.3 × 96.5 cm (45 × 38 in.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Mary Frick Jacobs Collection 

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Jan Rijcksen and His Wife, Griet Jans, known as "The Shipbuilder and His Wife", 1633, Oil on canvas, 113.8 x 169.8 cm (44 5/8 × 66 3/4 in.) British Royal Collection 

Gerrit Dou (Dutch, 1613–1675), Grocery Shop, 1647, Oil on panel, 38.5  x 29 cm (15 1/8 × 11 1/2 in.) Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures 

Pieter de Hooch (Dutch, 1629–after 1684), Interior with Women beside a Linen Cupboard,1663, Oil on canvas, 70 x 75.5 cm (27 5/8 x 29 3/4 in.) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam 

Jan van Bijlert (Dutch, 1597–1671), Portraits of the Men from the St. Job Inn in Utrecht Collecting Alms, about 1630–1635, Oil on canvas, 76.3 x 115.3 cm (30 1/8 x 45 3/8 in.)  Centraal Museum

Job Berckheyde (Dutch, 1630–1693), The Baker, about 1681, Oil on canvas, 63.3  x 53 cm (25 × 20 7/8 in.) Worcester Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Milton P. Higgins 

Photos of the Class Distinctions table displays at the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston