User Menu

MFA for Educators

Engage your students with the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to illustrate themes and concepts in any discipline.

New Age of Portraiture in Dutch Painting

This online gallery supports the Museum of Fine Arts exhibition Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the age of Rembrandt and Vermeer October 11, 2015-January 18, 2015.


New Age of Portraiture


In the 17th century Dutch society, the meaning of portraiture was changing. Once reserved for royalty, portraits were emblematic of wealth and power within a social hierarchy. However, a new wave of wealthy Dutch middle class merchants and professionals redefined this tradition. Some citizens reinvented their social status through the talents of Frans Hals, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, and others.  The painting’s size, along with the sitter’s appearance, background, and details within the portrait elevated one’s status.


17th Century Dutch history indicates that the rise of the middle class during this “golden age” resulted from several factors. The Netherlands became an important country with its active ports and shipping industries. Trade between other European countries, the New Americas, and routes across the Baltic Sea created a constant stream of valuable goods to the Netherlands. The Dutch had agricultural goods, grains, cattle, and fish to exchange as well as textiles. The textile and lace industries became powerful in the north. Factories produced lighter fabrics that they then exported to the Mediterranean. The lace industry grew simultaneously with the rise of textile demands because of 17th century fashions. Making lace was a respectable task for Dutch women and it was common to produce lace in in their homes addition to other domestic jobs or occupations.  As a republic, religious tolerance and quality of life drew migrants to port cities. The working class stretched over a range of jobs from wealthy merchants to more labor-intensive work.

Paintings became more commonplace across Dutch society. Once reserved for the wealthy or the church, the middle class also purchased landscapes, portraits, and genre paintings to hang in their homes.


This exhibition features a variety of portraits from the 17th century.



Learning goals:

In this gallery, you will discover

·      A variety of portrait styles within the Dutch republic

·      How a new middle class of patrons used portraits to show their wealth and power

·      Stories of individuals within visual art

This discovery will require students to:

-Look closely at the compositions and make observations based on visual evidence. 

-Make connections between the visual art and the history that encompasses its creation


Using this resource: 

·      Visual Art teachers and students will be interested in loose brushwork of Hals and unique interpretation of sitter

·      Visual Art teachers will be interested in the unique style of Rembrandt

·      History teachers and students will be interested in Rembrandt’s and Hals’s depiction of historical figures

·      History teachers and students will be interested in the paintings connections to Dutch culture in the 17th century


Sources: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Painting in the Dutch Golden Age: A profile of the Seventeenth Century –National Gallery of Art

Created By

Kate Milazzo


History/Social Studies, The Arts

Grade Level

3-5, 6-8

Related Resources