Recently, I took my children, aged 8 and 10, to see "Class Distinctions," the dazzling exhibition of Dutch paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts.
I tried to give them an idea of what to expect in advance: The show presents a picture, I said, of the whole of Dutch society, from the richest and most powerful to the poorest and most vulnerable. You'll see bakers and blacksmiths, shipbuilders and fishing fleets, newspaper owners and nobles, stock exchanges and almshouses. Cute dogs everywhere, too — and an exceptionally intelligent-looking cow.
We wandered into a room that contains a small picture of a poor boy eating porridge, and another of drunken men in an inn. Between them hung a large, crowded composition showing three elegantly dressed men in an Amsterdam almshouse. They're distributing bread to a chaotic press of destitute men, women, and children.
Aesthetically, the work, by an unknown painter, is the weakest in the exhibition. And yet, it has haunted me since I first saw it a month ago.
The painting seemed to catch the attention of my 8-year-old daughter, too.
"Look at that man in the middle," I whispered to her, indicating the one-eyed hunchback propped up on crutches, who stares out from near the center of the composition. "I feel like he's looking at us. Almost accusing us. Like he's saying, 'What are you doing to help?'"
My daughter drank this in for a moment.
I should say that I'm not a very moral — or, I think, moralizing — parent. I have reserves of moral indignation like anyone. But I'm complacent, hypocritical, and generally more interested in what happens when moral frameworks are overmatched by the complexities of life. (Whether this is what comes from hanging around with artists and reading novels, or if it's precisely why you hang around with artists and read novels, I can't say.)
When we do discuss ethics in our family, it's usually when an inconsistency has become glaring. "Why didn't you give anything to that lady," says a small voice from the back seat after a woman holding a desperate sign walks past us at a busy intersection, "when you gave some to that old man last week?"
I don't know. Why? Because I don't have the "appropriate" change? Because I'm thinking maybe it's a scam? Or is it just because today I'm feeling embarrassed, pinched, and miserly, where last week I was the confident embodiment of middle-class noblesse oblige?
Who knows? But here we are in "Class Distinctions" still peering at the hunchback in the Almoners' House. After a half a minute or so, my daughter says, "Tell me again what you just said about that man with one eye."
Why she wants me to repeat this, and not the eloquent things I was saying earlier about Vermeer's handling of liquid light, or Gerard ter Borch's way with satin, I can't say. But I can guess it's because the man really is disturbing.
When you look at him, you flinch. He gets his hooks into you.
It is fascinating to register all the many different ways Dutch painters found to negotiate class distinctions. Many, including the greatest, did what was expected of them: cheerleading for the wealthy, valorizing the powerful, congratulating both conspicuous consumption and conspicuous virtue, just as we do today.
Others, however, simply by describing the life they saw before them, beautifully (yes, beautifully) conveyed aspects of labor and poverty we don't often acknowledge, because there is no political purpose in doing so.
I'm thinking of the palpable intimacy in Gerrit Dou's painting of two servants clearing a table at night and in Nicolaes Maes's "The Lacemaker"; of the overcast, tatterdemalion atmosphere of the yard in ter Borch's "The Knife Grinder's Family," which features a mother nitpicking her way through her child's hair; and of the sense of physically draining but still somehow beneficent labor in the village gloaming in Isack Van Ostade's "Workmen Before an Inn."
By its title alone, "Class Distinctions" could almost be mistaken for a university exhibition with a throwback Marxist agenda. It's nothing like that, of course. But it comes along at a time when contemporary artists are worrying the question of wealth disparity as never before.
The 56th Venice Biennale, which ends Sunday, is a huge, sprawling contemporary show with a theme this year of global violence, poverty, conditions of labor, and displacement. At its center are marathon readings from Marx's "Das Kapital."
It's hard to believe that a curator in 2015 is subjecting audiences to readings from Marx. What next? Loudspeakers unironically playing the "Communist Internationale" on a permanent loop? But as I walked away from the show, past the gleaming yachts of art-collecting zillionaires basking on the Grand Canal, part of me appreciated the provocation. Say what you will, Marx got plenty of things right.
Closer to home, the Museum of the City of New York this fall is displaying late 19th-century photographs of Lower East Side slums, sweatshops, and back alleys. First published in 1890 as "How the Other Half Lives," they were taken by Jacob Riis, the Danish-American journalist and social reformer. Riis presented his images in popular lectures as a slide show, pricking the conscience of Gilded Age America.
"Class Distinctions" has no such purpose in mind. Yes, Dutch painters depicted all the many aspects of Dutch society in ways that, for instance, Italian and French painters did not. But as often as not, these pictures patronize and even humiliate the poor rather than offer empathy, much less political critique.
And yet the show does set the mind to thinking about questions of wealth, poverty, labor, and leisure. How could it not?
"Class Distinctions" was recently reviewed, and very insightfully, on the World Socialist Website. The writer, David Walsh, noted that when Marx wrote about the 17th-century Dutch in "Das Kapital," he described the Netherlands as "the model capitalist nation."
This was not a compliment. And yet there was, in fact, something exemplary about Dutch concern for the poor. If you were destitute in the 17th century, there was no better country in Europe to be.
(Of course, if that makes being destitute and Dutch sound like winning the lottery, we should not be so naive.)
One of the show's most famous paintings is Jan Steen's "Adolf and Catharina Croeser on the Oude Delft," known as ''The Burgher of Delft and His Daughter." Displayed in the final gallery, which is devoted to pictures of the different classes mingling, it depicts a corn merchant and brewery owner, well-dressed and well-fed, seated on the raised stoop outside his impressive home, as if on a throne.
On Croeser's right, his blond and slender daughter is dressed in lustrous, light-catching satin, silk, and lace. A dainty shoe protrudes from beneath the shimmering folds of her dress. The portly Croeser, wearing a wide-brimmed black hat, subtly inclines his head to the left to listen to the entreaty of an old beggar woman.
Her hat suggests she might be a German immigrant; her shoes have holes at the front. A young child beside her respectfully holds his tattered hat in his hand.
Unlike the garments of Croeser and Catharina, the beggars' clothes are brown and matte and broadly painted. The small tower of Delft's poorhouse, the Prinsenhof, appears in the distance right behind Croeser's head.
Catharina, the daughter, could almost belong to another picture. She stares out at us, like the old hunchback in the Almshouse picture. But what
is the quality of her engagement?
According to the curator of "Class Distinctions," Ronni Baer: "The patrician obligation of providing charity — and educating the young to meet that responsibility — is a recurring theme when the classes meet in Dutch painting."
A similar obligation was felt in Boston in the 19th century, and still, I think, today. The Industrial Revolution produced huge disparities in wealth and shocking working and living conditions among the poor in this city. Philanthropy thrived in the effort to ameliorate these conditions. Hospitals, housing, schools, and orphanages were built here, as were museums and the 7-mile linear park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the Emerald Necklace. (Natural beauty and the arts were, in Olmsted's view and others', an integral part of efforts to improve the lives of the poor.)
Steen's painting graces the cover of Simon Schama's "The Embarrassment of Riches" (1987), one of the great books on Dutch Golden Age culture. Schama had little interest in seeing the Dutch burghers of the 17th century as prototypes for the bourgeoisie of the Industrial Revolution and beyond. What Schama was interested in, instead, was the "moral ambiguity of good fortune" as experienced by the Dutch. He drew a connection, more psychological than political, between the 17th-century Netherlands — a wealthy, dynamic, freshly hatched republic that had just fought off an unwanted occupier — and America.
"It is no surprise to discover in the Netherlands," wrote Schama, "what de Tocqueville noticed in another precocious cornucopia, nineteenth century America, namely, 'that strange melancholy which often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance, and the disgust at life that sometimes seizes upon them in the midst of calm and easy circumstances.' ''
How fascinating that the well-off Dutch were susceptible to the same pricks of conscience that affect the complacent among us today.
None of the paintings in "Class Distinctions" is a newspaper editorial, much less a political screed. But just by rendering social phenomena the honor of loving and wide-eyed description, they enrich our sense of the many different ways of being alive.
They deepen our insight both into being alone inside our own lives and being connected to other people, other times, other environments. Above all, they give us a sense of being subject — all of us — to what Pascal called "the motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart, external circumstances."
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.