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The Dutch have landed in Boston with the Museum of Fine Arts’ new major exhibition of 75 masterpieces, titled “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.” Twenty-four of the works have never been displayed in the U.S. before — including a little-known portrait of a lady that proved to be a critical get for the show's curator.
Telling A Unique Story About 17th Century Dutch Society
Standing in the MFA's temporary exhibition gallery — surrounded by 75 precious Dutch works — senior curator of paintings Ronni Baer reflected on the five years it took her to get them on the museum's walls. She spent two and half of those years negotiating with 45 collectors and institutions.
"You can’t just go to somebody and say, ‘Could I have your masterpiece, please?' " Baer recalled. "Because they would say no. So you have to make a case for needing that particular painting and where it would fit. And sometimes you have to go back two or three times."
Baer did that — notebook in hand — to show the art owners exactly what she hoped to do with their treasures. She made her case by pitching a new angle on the Dutch Golden Age.
The curator told them she wanted to use the highest quality paintings to tell a unique story about what life was like for lower, middle and upper class people in 17th century Dutch society. And it worked.
In the end, Baer was able to borrow 73 paintings, including two famous Vermeers: "A Lady Writing," from Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, and "The Astronomer," from the Louvre in Paris.
'She Never Went Far Away From Home'
You could call those works the rock stars in this show, but to complete her narrative, Baer said she needed one specific type of painting that proved elusive.
"It’s hard to find a good portrait of a noble," she told me. And that posed a problem, she said, because her show's strength hinged on displaying top-notch work.
"Most nobles went to local painters to paint their portrait to put up with their father and their grandfather," Baer explained. "Whereas the newly rich went to the most fashionable portraitists."
But Baer kept searching for her noble to represent this particular segment of the 1 percent, and with the help of a scholar intimate with the works of a famed Dutch portrait painter named Paulus Moreelse, the determined curator wound up in an unexpected place: a remote, 700-year-old castle in the east of the Netherlands.
"And we found Ermgard," Baer said. "And she was it — she was my noble."
"The first thing you see is her enormous wealth," Jorien Jas remarked as she stood next to the relatively small, almost life-sized, above-the-waist portrait of a of a rosy-cheeked, upper-class woman dressed to the nines. Jas is a curator at Castle Rosendael, where the real-life Ermgard Elisabeth van Dorth lived in the 1600s.
"Her clothing, her dress and her collar — but especially all the jewels," Jas continued. "You see rows and rows of pearls, a big gold necklace, and a big jewel on her breast."
You can also see a gold engagement ring on one of Ermgard’s luminescent strands of pearls. Jas said research suggests the portrait could represent the 23-year-old’s mourning period in 1624 after her fiancé died before their wedding. But Ermgard eventually did marry, Jas explained, and her pristine wood panel portrait by Moreelse has been hanging in the Dutch castle — next to her husband’s likeness — for nearly 400 years.
"She never went far away from home," Ermgard's curator said affectionately. "Now she’s away from home for eight months — so that’s quite a long time. And it’s the first time she travels abroad and the first time, in fact, she’s traveled outside of our province. So it’s very special for her."
And it's been a little nerve-wracking for the caretaker. Jas actually escorted the portrait from her rural castle in the Netherlands to the MFA. She flew with Ermgard to New York, then drove in a truck up to Boston. Jas said the 28-hour journey ended at the MFA’s loading dock at 4 a.m.
"In the middle of the night, in the dark — and you can hardly imagine that people are here," Jas marveled. "But they were standing here to receive us, and to get all of the paintings out of the truck and into the museum."
"Every square inch of the painting speaks to the status of this woman in Dutch society," Wall Street Journal art critic Jonathan Lopez mused. "She is like a jewel herself."
Lopez himself made the trip to Boston from New York to review the MFA's new Dutch exhibition. A painter, he gushed over Ermgard’s glistening, oil-painted pearls, delicately executed linen collar, and the fact that Baer, the MFA curator, was able to pull off securing this loan for her show.
"It speaks to her credibility as a scholar, and to the august reputation of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that they were able to convince the owners to allow this picture to travel for the first time ever," Lopez said enthusiastically.
Even the Consul General for the Kingdom of the Netherlands was surprised that Baer was able to get this portrait.
"It’s amazing that she has discovered this painting, and that she managed to get the painting out of the country," Rob de Vos remarked, "because I don’t think this Castle Rosendael people have the habit of giving paintings on loan to big exhibitions like this."
As it turns out, the consul general, who lives and works out of Manhattan, has a personal connection to Ermgard’s castle and the small town of 1,000 inhabitants where it's located.
"Because I lived in that village for 15 years. And I learned to skate on the lake around the castle. And we played as little boys in the gardens of the castle," he said nostalgically. "And the baron who was living in the castle was a friend of my parents."
De Vos also said he's proud to see his country’s social history told through masterpieces from its Golden Age. He hasn’t been able to see many of the works that are now grouped together at the MFA because they’re usually scattered around the Netherlands, Europe or the U.S.
Ermgard curator Jorien Jas feels the same way knowing the beloved Moreelse portrait she's charged with watching over has a place among works by Rembrandt and Vermeer. But the curator also admitted that Ermgard will be missed while she's away.
"I have to say goodbye now, yes — which is a hard time," Jas told me as she prepared to leave the MFA. "But, well, we know she’s in good hands. She’s amongst friends, and that gives a good feeling to us."
Ermgard Elisabeth van Dorth and the 74 other masterworks will be on display at the MFA through January 18, before moving on to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. In June, Ermgard — the 17th century noble turned 21st century jet-setter — will fly back to her home to the Netherlands.
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