BOSTON — How do great art museums develop their collections? There’s an inclination to think it all took place in the distant past. In fact, of course, it’s an ongoing process.
Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, one of just a handful of American museums with ambitions to collect across cultures and time periods, is best known for the depth of its holdings in American art and 19th-century French art, its artifacts from Egypt, its Greek and Roman collections, and its Asian art.
But another area where it has long been strong and has lately become a powerhouse is Dutch and Flemish art. After a transformative gift in 2017, the MFA recently renovated a suite of seven galleries dedicated to the display of this work, most of it from the 17th century.
The Dutch Golden Age is chronically doomed, it seems, to feel hyper-relevant to our own era. The period saw the consolidation of a proud republic, a new spirit of intellectual and creative freedom, and the accumulation of great wealth based on maritime trade — some of it supported by slavery.
All this fed into a very competitive art market and extraordinary growth in production. Over the course of the 17th century, an estimated 5 million paintings were made in the Netherlands. The republic’s unique circumstances led to an endlessly absorbing interplay between market forces, status and religious beliefs, as well as new forms of self-consciousness both about what it is to be a citizen of the world and what it is to be a breathing human animal wearing particular clothes, engaged in particular activities at particular times of day in, say, Amsterdam, Deventer or Delft. (Whatever else it does, Dutch painting puts you right there.)
The MFA’s renovated galleries are ravishing. With works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals, Gerrit Dou, Peter Paul Rubens, and oodles of their peers and competitors, Boston is now one of the best places outside of the Netherlands to get a comprehensive introduction to Dutch and Flemish art, making it a worthy rival to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Better yet, in an alcove between two of the galleries — like a wardrobe leading to Narnia — is an elevator that takes you down to hushed and wood-paneled rooms hung with yet more Dutch and Flemish paintings. These rooms include a library, study pods, a seminar room and a commons. This is the MFA’s new Center for Netherlandish Art.
The CNA, which aims to “promote the study and appreciation of Dutch and Flemish art,” is the first of its kind in the United States, according to a museum news release. Working with scholars and universities both local and far-flung, its mission is to stimulate “interdisciplinary research and object-based learning.” Its focus, in other words, is not just on 17th-century art as defined by art historians but also on whatever scholars in other fields find interesting about it, which might extend (it already has) to the development of new markets, the history of the slave trade and what Dutch landscape painting may reveal about climate resilience.
Perhaps the best thing about the CNA is that it’s physically part of the MFA. Situated on the museum’s ground floor, it’s about 10 seconds away from the upstairs galleries (one of which is reserved for displays generated by the center). Touring the premises with CNA Director Christopher Atkins as some of the last books were being placed on the shelves, I inhaled the special atmosphere of scholarship being undertaken in the presence of the actual objects of study. There’s nothing quite like it.
The gifts that made all this possible, and which were a long time in the making, came from two local couples: Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie. Together, in 2017, the van Otterloos and Weatherbies donated 114 Dutch and Flemish paintings by about 75 artists. Their long-term relationships with scholars at nearby universities, with fellow Boston collectors (including Maida and George Abrams), and with MFA curators like the Dutch and Flemish expert Ronni Baer (now at Princeton University) made the Boston museum a natural home for their collections.
The van Otterloos and Weatherbies also funded the CNA, with the van Otterloos crucially donating a collection of more than 20,000 books acquired from the late art historian Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann. The library, combined now with the MFA’s preexisting William Morris Hunt Library on Dutch and Flemish art, is at the heart of the CNA.
At the head of the sequence of seven renovated galleries, the MFA curators have displayed one of the museum’s greatest treasures, Rogier van der Weyden’s “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin” (1435-1440). Its placement in an exposed threshold space is a little unsettling. But as a gateway to the rest of the Dutch and Flemish collection it makes sense.
Scholars of early Netherlandish and 17th-century Dutch art tend to occupy separate fiefdoms. But the traditions are clearly linked, and the contention here is that the main currents in Dutch 17th-century painting can be found in van der Weyden’s masterpiece.
One of those currents is the theme of the artist at work (Saint Luke is patron saint of artists, and van der Weyden may have used himself as the model). So it’s apt that just a few steps away is one of the museum’s other great treasures, Rembrandt’s masterpiece “Artist in his Studio.” This, too, may or may not be a self-portrait, but it certainly demonstrates a new degree of self-consciousness about painting pictures.
The little Rembrandt hangs beside a new gift from the van Otterloos, “Interior of a Painter’s Studio,” painted two years later by Jan Davidsz. de Heem. De Heem, one of the great Dutch still life painters, lived in Leiden, like the young Rembrandt, and the studio here looks remarkably similar to Rembrandt’s. But where the Rembrandt painting shows the painter and only the backside of his canvas, de Heem chooses to show the back of the painter and, fully visible, his unfinished canvas on the easel.
More than just paintings are on display in the revamped galleries. There is, for instance, a magnificent model ship, based on the Valkenisse, an early-18th-century cargo ship run by the Dutch East India Company. The company controlled the trade between the Netherlands and Asia. That trade accounted for a good deal of the wealth that fed the burgeoning market for paintings, which in turn often reflected that wealth. (The Dutch were very eager to see themselves.)
Among the fabulous examples of Dutch decorative arts, many of them gathered in a distinct gallery with a black-and-white-tiled floor, is a wonderful dollhouse. The large-scale cutaway model contains nine elaborately appointed rooms.
A highlight of the new hang is a recently rediscovered series of five paintings illustrating the five senses. They’re by a largely forgotten female painter, Michaelina Wautier (1604-1689). Acquired by the van Otterloos, the paintings show young boys looking through glasses (sight), playing a recorder (hearing), pinching a nose to block the odor of a rotten egg (smell), eating richly buttered bread (taste), and staring at a finger cut by a knife while whittling wood (touch). The boys’ expressions are so vivid and Wautier’s treatment of a stock theme so original and direct that you want to know more.
That is the effect of this entire rehang. It sparks curiosity about new images and new notions and sets old things in a fresh light. Two still lifes by Osias Beert, for instance, feature an assortment of sweets alongside oysters, wine and caviar. The sweets were made with sugar imported from Brazil. They are displayed, provocatively — and truthfully — alongside a depiction by Frans Post of a Brazilian sugar plantation exploiting the labor of enslaved people.
Of course, paintings are more than just socio-historical documents and the curators strike a nice balance between providing social context and showing faith in the paintings as works of art. People love Dutch paintings because they’re beautiful, ugly, technically virtuosic, stylistically diverse and often funny. They can be uncannily familiar and bafflingly strange. And they always make you look at your own world from a new perspective.
Boston is one of America’s most segregated cities, and the MFA sits right on the edge of Roxbury, which is more than 50 percent African American and more than 25 percent Latino. The museum is finally beginning to look like it wants to connect with this neighborhood and to welcome more diverse audiences by, among other things, displaying work by African American artists throughout its most trafficked areas.
In other ways, too, after a difficult few years, the MFA is looking transformed. It is playing to its strengths, with superb new displays of Greek and Roman art, Impressionism and, now, Dutch and Flemish art. But if you think the MFA’s holdings in these areas are fabulous, consider that its collections of Asian art are even better. In fact, they are among the very best in the world.
Sadly, its scattered and lately reduced Asian galleries don’t even come close to reflecting this. Given that three-fifths of the world’s population is Asian, that our economic, political and cultural futures will be richly intertwined with the many countries of Asia, and that the stuff owned by the MFA is just so good, it strikes me that doing justice to the Asian collection should probably be museum director Matthew Teitelbaum’s next big priority.