The first thing you see in the grand central gallery of the brand-new wing of Dutch and Flemish art at the Museum of Fine Arts isn’t a painting, but a towering model of a tall ship right at the gallery’s heart. Oh, there are Rembrandts, never fear — three in this room alone, all of them masterworks — and Rubens, van Dyck, and Hals; van Honthorst’s wildly fantastical “Triumph of the Winter Queen,” from 1636, hangs just outside, a cold open. But the dominant presence of the ship — a merchant vessel of the Dutch East India Company, the likes of which plied the seas by the thousands at the Dutch colonial era’s peak — is no small gesture.
It’s a provocative symbol: of power, of wealth, and of its source in the faraway colonies the Dutch established in the 16th and 17th centuries across the Americas, Asia, and Africa by infamously brutal means. It’s also a symbol of a narrative leap that the MFA’s new Center for Netherlandish Art has taken here, in its new permanent home. “We’re trying to shake things up,” said Christopher Atkins, the center’s director. “That’s the goal — to tell a new history of the material and introduce people to new concepts.”
In the two years between Atkins’s appointment and the center’s opening this weekend, it’s been through in private the same identity crisis that has very publicly tested cultural institutions all over the world. The pandemic has amplified gross disparities in every sphere, from economic to racial to gender; and displays of centuries-old historical art, often the product of vast wealth accumulated through colonial plunder and exploitation, are no exception to this reexamination.
More expansive truth-telling about ugly past episodes is now the urgent priority. Ample evidence is all around: Across the street at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the landmark reunion of Titian’s six “poesie” paintings comes with a thoughtful dissection by contemporary scholars of the series’ indulgent sexual objectification of women — and violence against them. And in New York, the Metropolitan Museum’s recent “The Medici: Portraits and Politics 1512-1570,” offered a sprawling analysis of the web of wealth and power that gave rise to the Renaissance through its principal patrons, the Medicis.
The exhibition was also an occasion to display the Met’s extravagant collection of Bronzino portraits, a pleasure not to be denied. But, in the evolving ethos of art-historical exhibitions, pleasure alone is no longer its own end, and no art, however great, can — or should — escape the moral and social framework in which it was made.
In the MFA’s new Dutch and Flemish galleries, those who want nothing more than to drift in the exultant bliss of one of the most fertile periods of Western art will find an unhurried flow of great works, beautifully displayed and padded with rich art historical context. But for those who demand more, there’s a thread of subtle purpose to be found.
Earlier this month, Atkins and Frederick Ilchman, the museum’s curator of paintings and chair of the Art of Europe department, led me on a tour of the galleries’ still-unfinished expanse. In the curving mezzanine leading into the new galleries, Michaelina Wautier’s “The Five Senses,” a 1650 series of five paintings, ring the walkway.
Ilchman proudly explained that Wautier was completely unknown just a half-dozen years ago, written out of history over centuries of scholarship that made little space for women in the canon. “We put her in the most prestigious place we could,” he said. “It was very deliberate: ‘Let’s not bury the story. Let’s put this right in the middle.’”
The whole enterprise is the final product of exceptional largesse, both financial and philosophical: The MFA, historically rich in Netherlandish holdings, became the recipient in 2017 of an extraordinary gift from the Van Otterloo and Weatherbie families, Boston-area collectors who joined forces to donate 114 works from the period.
The families also gave a further gift: an endowment to build the Center for Netherlandish Art, a library and study center that establishes the MFA as a hub of research and thinking around one of the tentpole epochs in Western culture.
Atkins said the center won’t dwell in a blinkered realm where art is the sole concern. “We’ll have people with different expertise, different disciplines, not just art history — it could be cultural history, literature, economics, anything that utilizes the collection,” he said. “And if it pushes us in unexpected directions, we’re wide open to it.”
Critically, the center has the space to put those ideas on display: Two of the galleries in the Dutch and Flemish collection are set aside to be dynamic spaces able to host what the center generates, however unorthodox. “We want it to be a laboratory,” said Susan Weatherbie, one of the center’s patrons. “I think people always were, of course, aware of the history and the context, but it wasn’t the focus. We’re ready, willing, and able to embrace that, and to learn from it.”
Experiments began before the center opened officially this month. Ilchman mentioned a recent virtual seminar on rising sea levels with a Dutch hydraulic engineer — a concern Holland knows well, having been below sea level for centuries, as many of the paintings capture.
But in April, the center made its public debut when it cohosted a three-day symposium with Harvard Art Museums called “Art Museums and the Legacies of the Dutch Slave Trade: Curating Histories, Envisioning Futures.” It was the center’s first public act, its introduction to the world, and a deliberate signal of its priorities.
“We were already grappling with a lot of these issues, but it’s only become more urgent,” Atkins said. “It was a great opportunity to learn. We wanted to make sure we were doing the absolute most to get our messages as right as we could.”
Consider the immediate context: Concurrent with the April symposium, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum, was hosting “Slavery,” a powerful exhibition about the country’s deep ties to the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 16th and 17th centuries.
In unblinking fashion, it laid out how cultural flowering of the Northern Renaissance was the product of wealth generated by human trafficking and colonial exploitation. One section of the exhibition put on view a pair of rare full-length portraits by Rembrandt, acquired jointly by the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre in 2017.
Before the exhibition, the portraits enjoyed pride of place, hung in the Rijksmuseum alongside “The Nightwatch,” regarded by many to be Rembrandt’s greatest work. “Slavery” put them in a different context.
The portraits, of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, painted in 1634, capture a married couple able to afford to commission the greatest portraitist of the era, and at the peak of his power. The source of their wealth, the exhibition explained, was sugar; Soolmans’s family owned the largest refinery in the Netherlands. Raw sugar was harvested on plantations in Brazil established by the Dutch India Company, which profited enormously from enslaved labor. “It is a reminder,” intones Rijksmuseum’s director Taco Dibbits in an online presentation of the exhibition, “of how the history of slavery and the history of the Netherlands are bound together.”
These are the legacies the center will have to grapple with, too, and that work has already begun: One of the two galleries set aside as laboratories, as Weatherbie said, is currently devoted to global trade. A captivating, darkly sensual 1610 still life by the Flemish painter Osias Beert presents an array of delicacies: oysters glistening on a silvery dish, sweets, a plate of almonds dusted with sugar.
It is, the nearby text tells us, a display of social station as much as it is of delectability; assistant curator Antien Knaap told me that paintings of sweets were symbols of the sugar trade and the region’s burgeoning economic might. But, as the text says, “these alluring images hide a bitter truth. Sugar production in the Americas relied on the enslaved labor of African and Indigenous men, women and children.” It goes on to explain that, over two centuries, Dutch ships delivered more than 600,000 Africans into bondage in the Caribbean and South America.
As a subtle coda, the display includes just one small Brazilian landscape from 1663, by Frans Post; the artist spent time in the Dutch colony there with his patron, Johan Maurits, who was its governor. Post’s job, fundamentally, was to paint a lie, which he did dozens of times for the rest of his life: The picture, of a sugar plantation, is peaceful and idyllic; text on the wall explains that historical accounts describe plantation life under Dutch rule as especially brutal. “Such idealized visions,” it reads, “were designed to please consumers in the Netherlands.”
It’s a good start, says Nasser Rabbat, a professor of architecture who studies Islamic cultural history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rabbat was among a five-panel advisory group who consulted with the museum and center on the new installation.
“I would have loved it to be a bit more forceful,” he said. “But really, what we have is a top museum in the country coming out and saying, ‘We are going to acknowledge the effects of colonialism and slavery on that which is so sacred to us,’ which is classical European painting of the 16th and 17th century. I have to congratulate them for that.”
Circling back to the grand central gallery, the tall ship imposes itself on the ravishing display of Northern Renaissance painting at its peak. It inflects the pure aesthetic pleasure of the scene with cold reality: Can you look at Albert Cuyp’s “Orpheus Charming the Animals,” a fanciful menagerie of leopards, camels, elephants, and ostriches alongside dairy cows in the Dutch lowlands, without seeing a metaphor for empire, and the faraway realms the country had violently claimed for its own? Or Rembrandt’s magnificent, brooding full-length portraits of Maria Bockenolle and the Reverend Johannes Elison — one of only three such pairs he ever made — without wondering about the source of the wealth that made such an extravagance possible? (Remember: One of the other two pairs was featured in the Rijksmusuem’s “Slavery,” painted in 1634, the same year.)
The final lesson of the new Dutch and Flemish galleries? That greatness, however you measure it, comes at equally great a price. For us, the cost is the loss of uncomplicated pleasure, but with ultimately greater benefit: knowledge, and truth.
DUTCH AND FLEMISH GALLERIES
Opening Nov. 20 at the Museum of Fine Arts. 465 Huntington Ave., 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org