When we first arrived in Kansas, we acquired 3 memberships immediately: The Kansas City Zoo, Union Station/Science City and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The first two, obviously, were Blue-inspired purchases. I love a zoo and science museum as much as the next nerdgirl, but I seldom felt the need to visit more than once. Children, with their short attention spans and even shorter memories, however, are the prime target for museum memberships. Oh you need to fill an hour after church? Great! Let's just pop into the Nelson-Atkins story time/art hour. No, we don't need to pay for parking. We're members. There's a new baby penguin, you say? Well, we are on that side of town anyway, we'll just run by and check it out! No admission fee for us. We're members. And if Blue loses his ever-lovin mind before we get around to Africa, we can threaten to leave (and make good on it) without much anguish about how much we paid to get in.
As they say, membership has its privileges.
Over the year, we've certainly gotten our money's worth from the zoo and the science museum, but the art museum has been more challenging. Although Sunday's art and story hour at the Nelson-Atkins is well worth it, the art classes for Blue's age always filled before I could get him enrolled. And touring an art museum with a 3 year old is kind of like doing yoga in a room full of naked people; one of us wants to really focus, one of us is bored and in the end, something important is going to accidentally get touched. So, we just tend to avoid it altogether. Or hope that nap time in the stroller coincides with a new exhibit. (Although that's harder, too, because we moved from the jogging stroller to the umbrella stroller a tad late in the game and now his feet drag the floor, often halting the wheels, which he thinks is hysterical.) When we planned our date night in the big city, I was quick to add the new exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins, Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer to the agenda.
I will be the first to admit, I'm not well-versed in the Dutch masters. I can spot an Impressionist painting from 50 paces and I love to judge the contemporary artists with their canvases painted entirely in black or their ABC intestines (no really, it's a thing...)
Claes Oldenburg’s late pop-art sculpture Alphabet/Good Humor, as viewed at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas a few weeks ago.
And I can usually spot a Vermeer, even if the subject isn't wearing a pearl earring. However, whenever I encounter a gallery of Dutch artists, I usually play Spot the Famous Ones, take a quick picture, if allowed, to prove to Facebook that I was there and move on. This was an entire exhibit of Dutch artists with only a couple of paintings by Vermeer and a handful of pieces by Rembrandt on display. Well, this will be fast, I thought. We checked in at the front desk, picked up our free tickets, two iPod audio guides and headed down the hall.
I was immediately struck by the size of the exhibition, which examines "17th century Dutch paintings through the lens of social classes". The largest room held paintings of and commissioned by the upper classes (presumably the best represented in the exhibition because the upper class were the most interesting to paint and they could afford to pay the artists). The Princes of Orange (the de facto rulers of the newly established Dutch Republic), nobility and aspiring nobility can be seen throughout the upper class gallery. The audio guide does a wonderful job of drawing your eye to details in each painting - tiny clues that indicate the subject's status in life, like the presence of a slave or a harpsichord or a foot warmer (foot warmers end up being like moles by the end. Once you see it, you can't unsee it. And you see it in everything. Mooooooole). True nobility were most often the subjects of portraits because, y'know, they had time to sit for hours each day and just...pose. But they also wanted to document their lineage and used art as a way of publicly establishing the family tree. Aspiring nobility posed with horses and hunting dogs, alluding to the idea that they filled their day with leisure, as well. They sometimes asked the artist to take some creative license with the painting, adding a slave here or a beautifully imagined and outrageously expensive tapestry there. They posed with coats of arms, albeit recently purchased and not exactly handed down by landed gentry.
And you learn the story of how Rembrandt lost the patronage of the entire upper class, all due to the placement of a single glove. Oops.
Toward the end of each gallery, there are a couple of glass cases that show examples of dining utensils and serving ware commonly used by each class. I paused, in awe of a hand-laced table cloth from 1650.
1650, y'all. 1-6-5-0. That's almost 400 years ago. And it was in impeccable condition. Let's just allow that to sink in for a moment.
Visitors also see an elite, but working class consisting of civic and political appointees and wealthy merchants in this gallery. They often headed charitable organizations and were depicted by painters in these roles. It is here that Vermeer's A Lady Writing (not as striking as Girl With a Pearl Earring but still recognizable as one of his more famous pieces) and The Astronomer (another obvious Vermeer that was on display at the Louvre the last time we saw it) hang.
The next gallery, paintings of the middle class, included men and women who were both professionals and educated small business owners. From ministers and notaries to shopkeepers and craftsmen, these paintings depicted scenes of daily trade in growing Dutch communities like Holland. Rembrandt's The Ship Builder and His Wife hangs in this gallery, as do two lesser known paintings (to me, anyway), Interior with Women Beside a Linen Cupboard and Courtyard of a House in Delft. These pieces, both by Pieter de Hooch, are compared in the audio guide, giving the viewer a better idea of how to distinguish the house maids from the ladies of the house in Dutch paintings. As I stepped back to take in both works, I thought about how, aside from the presence of maids (an important and unfortunate distinction), these scenes could have just as easily shown my life. How often do I reach into the closet to put away or take out towels and sheets? How many times a week do I walk through the courtyard, holding Blue's hand and talking about what we see? By today's standards, we aren't even middle class, but people are people and some of our routines look exactly the same as they did 400 years ago. No, we don't have to wash our clothes next to the well, but we still sing to our children and provide for our families and drink a beer with our friends. We have evolved, but we are still recognizable.
The lower class gallery takes up much less space than the first two because, although it was the most common sight, it was the least painted. Most of the art shows poverty, either deserved (such as drunks and gamblers) or undeserved (elderly and orphans) in a harsh light. Scenes of hard labor (like the brutal work of laying out heavy, soaking loads of linen to dry in the sun - a step in the linen-making process) are interspersed with drunken brawls, complete with vomit in the background. There is very little to love about how the lower class is depicted, but quite a bit to observe in the details each artist decided to include.
The last gallery, Where the Classes Meet, looks at situations when the various classes would have encountered one another. From traveling musicians singing at the threshold of a wealthy home, to the winter leisure activities they all participated in on the same frozen canal, to the annual local fair, these paintings show how the social classes mixed while still retaining very distinct and understood rules for each one. It's a bittersweet end to a magnificent art exhibition. You want the lady of the house, who sits in a chair by the door offering a coin to her toddler to give to the street musicians, to invite them in...to offer them tea. But that won't happen. This is a brief encounter, a rare overlap of social class, and a moral lesson, encouraging the wealthy to be more charitable. It's not often that we catch such a clear glimpse of the 17th century, but this exhibition gives us art and a context through which to view it.
On our way to dinner, we talked about how hard it is for parents of very young children to remember to slow down and look at things. A child's attention span is understandably short; so much to see, feel, smell, do in just 10-12 waking hours each day. There's simply not enough time to stop and ponder, especially on something as one dimensional as a painting. And that's OK. There will be time for that later. But as parents, we must not forget how to stop and ponder or we won't be patient enough when the time does come. Sometimes I feel like it's a sprint to keep up with Blue's interests and questions. The end of the day often finds me exhausted and sprawled out on the couch watching the History Channel. We fill our days with field trips to farms and libraries and, yes, even art museums. Sometimes we stop and look and listen, but never for as long as I would like. I remind myself that this is all practice for the day we wander into an exhibit and as I'm bristling past, he grabs my arm and says, "Mom, LOOK. This was made in 1650!"
This exhibition, which originated at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, includes Dutch art from all over the US and many pieces from Europe (some of which have never been to the US). The exhibition is curated by Dr. Ronni Baer, a specialist in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art and a Senior Curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She also narrates the audio guide, which I highly recommend, unless you are also a specialist in 17th-century Dutch art.