Inside the newly renovated MFA Dutch and Flemish art galleries

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has never owned a Vermeer, but it does have something even rarer, a painting that Vermeer copied into two of his own paintings. Dirck van Baburen’s lascivious and satirical ‘The Procuress’ hung on the wall in Vermeer’s ‘The Concert’ – adding a nod connotation to the three seemingly respectable performers depicted in the most beloved of all stolen works of art in the famous 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist. But while the Vermeer is still absent, the Baburen is prominently displayed in the largest of seven elegantly renovated galleries devoted to Dutch and Flemish art at the MFA.

This piece is a good example of the intelligence that quietly underlies the new installation. At one end is one of three known pairs of full portraits by Rembrandt (an elderly couple: Maria Bockenolle and the Reverend Johannes Elison), while at the other end is Rembrandt’s smaller portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh, his future wife Saskia’s 62- year old cousin. Near the Baburens are the endearing “Boy Singing” by Hendrick ter Brugghen, two portraits by Frans Hals and the bewitching “Orpheus Charming the Animals” by Aelbert Cuyp (he plays the violin in front of an audience of leopards, an elephant, a camel, a small ostrich and a big cat, among other exotic and colorful birds and beasts).

Opposite all these Dutch paintings, a wall of Flemish masters, including Anthony van Dyck’s eerily sinister self-portrait as Icarus (almost a premonition of his own untimely death at 42?), Peter Paul Rubens’ striking portrait of Mulay Ahmad, the Berber king of Tunis, painted long after the potentate’s death, along with four of Rubens’ spectacularly free biblical and mythological oil sketches.

The Art of the Netherlands in the 17th Century Gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

And in the middle of this gallery is a display case containing a large 18th century model of the Dutch East India freighter, the “Valkenisse”, which sailed between the Netherlands and the East Indies, contributing to Holland’s position in as a world power, that’s what made all this art possible.

Art, geopolitics and commerce suggestively underlie all the exhibits. In an adjoining room, paintings of ships and stormy ports face dazzling still lifes depicting some of the edible and visual delights imported by those same ships.

This new installation is made possible by donations, pledges and long-term loans (a total of 114 paintings) from two pairs of generous benefactors: Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie. What collectors of this art would not be honored to have their works included in the MFA’s exceptional collection, which hangs alongside two of the most renowned Dutch paintings in America: the magnificent Rogier van der Weyden’s “St. Luke Drawing the Virgin” (for the first time in my memory, finally brought to light), whose intricate details – figures and landscapes, clothing and objects – the curators regard as a source of inspiration for the whole subsequent history of Dutch and Flemish paintings. ; and Rembrandt’s miniature marvel, “Artist in His Studio.” Most scholars consider the portrait of a St. Luke artist, van der Weyden, to be his self-portrait, just as Rembrandt’s artist – intently examining his new canvas – is surely a self-image, if not a self-portrait. These two masterpieces practically face each other as this door opens, inviting us – welcoming we – in.

Rembrandt Harmensz.  van Rijn, "Artist in his studio," circa 1628. (Courtesy of the Zoe Oliver Sherman Collection given in memory of Lillie Oliver Poor/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, “Artist in His Studio”, circa 1628. (Courtesy of Zoe Oliver Sherman Collection in memory of Lillie Oliver Poor/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

And what treasures await us: Gerard ter Borch transforming paint into satin; Jacob van Ruisdael’s small but revealing panoramas of Haarlem and Alkmaar (“detailed, wide and clear”, as Elizabeth Bishop might have described them); three whitewashed church interiors by Pieter Saenredam (just one would be incredibly rare); a delightfully crowded Hendrick Avercamp Ice Skating Stage; three small but lively self-portraits of Gerrit Dou, Judith Leyster and Maria Schalken (considered for centuries as painted by her brother).

Michaelina Watier, "Smell (The Five Senses)," 1650. (Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Michaelina Wautier, “Smell (The Five Senses)”, 1650. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Here, for a change, women artists receive their due. One of the highlights of the new installation, in the so-called “Upper Hemicycle” (the circular hallway at the top of the stairwell outside the galleries themselves), are “The Five Senses”, a series by the virtually unknown Belgian artist Michaelina Wautier (1604-1689), perhaps the first time they have been exhibited publicly. Five very real young boys each demonstrate one of the senses: one staring at his hand through glasses (“Sight”), one pinching his nose at an obviously rotten egg (“Smell”), one playing a flute ( “Hear”), one biting into a slice of buttered bread (“Taste”), the other having just cut his finger (“Touch”).

And not just paintings. Along with the model ship, there’s a contemporary recreation of a splendid dollhouse, filled with over 200 original miniatures; a fabulous coconut cup (1607) surmounted by a silver sea monster about to be harpooned by Neptune, supported by a mermaid seated on a dolphin, and all supported by four tiny silver turtles. The silver and ceramic cases include many objects similar to some of the objects in the paintings.

These rooms are also connected to a less visible but equally important enterprise several floors below in the MFA’s new Center for Netherlandish Art (CNA), the first of its kind in that country. It will be open in January to students, collectors, restorers, art historians, international scholars and the public by appointment only. The NAC includes an extensive library of 43,000 volumes of scholarly and rare books, a “state-of-the-art preservation center,” a beautiful reading room, space for meetings and events, staff offices, and even a small selection of paintings not on view upstairs.

Leo and Phyllis Beranek Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  (Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Leo and Phyllis Beranek Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The center has received support from the Netherlands and Belgium and counts among its regional and global partners the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Harvard Art Museums, as well as Harvard, Northeastern, Yale and Brown Universities. Improved digital access, “collection sharing” with other partner institutions, a fellowship program and a summer institute (from 2023) are all in the works.

Already on display is a room in the gallery’s new space called CNA Innovation Gallery, which will feature collaborative exhibitions rotating each year. The current one is in conjunction with Northeastern and includes some of the collection’s most notable paintings. Do I want that to change one day? No. Can’t wait to see the next one? Yes!

Students in the reading room of the Center for Netherlandish Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  (Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Students in the reading room of the Center for Netherlandish Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Mildred D. Field