|Photo op at the end of the exhibit|
Recently my Dad and I went to see “Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Honestly, I went because he asked me to; I probably wouldn’t have gone of my own accord. And for the same reason, I went on my first guided museum tour, which would have made me feel very grown up, if I hadn’t been the youngest person on the tour.
The exhibit is broken into several groups of painting types, showing the highest, middle, and working classes, as well as spaces in which all three intersected in 1800s society in the Dutch Republic. The most impressive and stunning works were those commissioned by the aristocracy, including the only Vermeer painting ever to be exhibited in Kansas City.
That painting, “A Lady Writing,” which I’ve seen repeatedly pop up in my FB feed to advertise the exhibit, is actually the reason why I wasn’t interested in going. The pictures of it simply do not do it justice, and I thought the image rather boring. Until, that is, I saw it in person. I was absolutely stunned. It seemed to glow from within, like a stained glass window or an LED screen, and it was so perfectly executed that there was a 3D holographic effect. The lady seemed to rise towards me from the past, perfectly shining with contentment. I’ve never seen any representative painting that came close to affecting me that way. It alone is worth a visit to the exhibit!
The other paintings for the aristocracy were also beautiful, with lush detail and exquisite rendering. The upwardly mobile middle class paintings were also well done, although without the impressive scale of the aristocratic paintings, and with less extravagant costuming. Both the aristocracy and the rich commoners’ faces were portrayed with loving treatments. (It was exciting to see, "Street Musicians at the Door" in the middle class section. It was a painting I'd seen and liked [extremely attractive color scheme!] at the St. Louis Art Museum last year, and it was like running into an old friend.)
However, the next section, featuring the poor working class was a striking difference. These paintings were also commissioned by the rich, and to elevate the viewer above the rabble, the poor were depicted roughly, with ugly, almost inhuman faces, rough clothing, and sometimes gremlin-like characteristics. It was astonishing. The contrast was especially striking in paintings that showed the classes mingling in spaces like the market, etc.
It was refreshing to see an examination of class in a museum setting, and also to have a new lens through which to view older, representative paintings. This exhibit certainly increased my appreciation for them, as well as the symbolic language they use, and helped me become more imaginatively and mentally engaged in a style of painting that I have tended to discount as less interesting than others.
You can see “Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” through May 9, 2016, and I may just go back again myself. It’s that good.
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