Dutch and Flemish art captivates viewers at the Museum of Fine Arts

Boston Museum of Fine Arts received a generous donation from 114 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings on long-term loan and permanent ownership from private collectors as of 2017. Years after receiving this new collection, the MFA recently renovated a suite of seven galleries, open to the public since November 2021, to display these works.These galleries coincide with the opening of the MFA Dutch Art Center, the museum’s newest research center dedicated to promoting artistic study of the region. Today, thanks to this latest acquisition, the MFA now holds one of the most impressive collections of 17th-century Dutch art.

However, the MFA’s extensive collection extends beyond paintings and features a variety of artifacts, including a library of books on Dutch and Flemish art, sculptures, silverware, ceramics and ship models. With this multifaceted collection, the MFA is able to detail effectively Dutch world trade domination of slavery and the sugar trade in the 17th century. The vast assortment of exhibits documents the region’s extensive trade networks that resulted in what MFA calls it the “First Age of Globalization.” Consequently, significant cultural and regional overlap is present in many works of art in the collection.

As soon as you enter the first room of the gallery, a projected video is displayed, summarizing the history of the Dutch financial empire and the origins of a new independent art market in the 17th century. This video is complemented by several other infographic displays throughout the gallery that feature data visualizations of the finances involved in selling art in a competitive market at this time. The first two rooms are devoted entirely to still lifes, with each painting illustrating a wide variety of world objects that indicate the extent of early Dutch trading networks. These rooms capture the precise detail often depicted by artists such as Willem Claesz. Heda and Jacob van Ruisdael.

Despite their static subject, the original halls of the galleries manage to captivate viewers with their interactive elements. Rather than displaying conventional descriptions below each table, a wall of Dutch landscapes invites viewers to participate in a casual game to assign each landscape to its respective artist based solely on written descriptions of each artist’s technique and signature subject. The gallery even goes so far as to include a puzzle key on a separate wall, motivating viewers to practice their visual analysis skills as a means of understanding the context behind each painting.. The organization of the gallery encourages visitors to participate in a dialogue to accurately correlate the different works to their respective masters, allowing guests to spend up to 15 minutes on each wall. Paintings and gallery assets are also complemented by open world atlases showing the scope of the Dutch trade network. These archives immerse visitors in the historical context in which these works were created.

However, the last room of the Dutch and Flemish galleries remains the most exciting, because all major eyewear from MFA’s Northern European collection are seen together. On one wall, portraits of renowned Dutch artists, such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Frans Hals, dominate the viewer’s attention. Adjacent to the Rembrandts, “Orpheus Charming the Animals” by Aelbert Cuyp (circa 1640) stands out as a beautiful representation of various animal species in a vast and dynamic landscape.

Sundirectly opposite these Dutch masters is an equally impressive display of works by Flemish artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. Especially, Rubens portrait of “Malay Ahmad” (circa 1609) separates itself from the rest of the works with its single subject. Directly below the portrait, a video installation plays which elaborates on the subject’s importance to Rubens as a recurring image in his other paintings. Finally, bringing the room together, in the center of the main gallery stands a model of a freighter often used by the Dutch East India Company. Jhe ship model puts tangible emphasis on the very means of transportation that ultimately led to the magnificent paintings surrounding the viewer, all products of growth Dutch Marlet.

Thanks to a significant organization of the exhibition, the MFA latest additions to his Dutch and Flemish collection illustrate the socio-historical context of the Dutch trading empire and its impact on North Europe art. Each work beautifully embodies the fine detail typically found in Dutch painting, challenging viewers to redefine the technical limits of the medium. With a variety of historical artifacts on display, from elaborate dollhouses to captivating still lifes, a visit to the MFA New Dutch and Flemish galleries offers visitors a valuable opportunity to learn more about one of the most important moments in Western art.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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