BOSTON — Back in the day, it was probably enough for a museum to hang paintings on the wall, open the doors and watch the people flow through the galleries.

Today, museums have to tell stories to help visitors understand how art is relevant in their lives, even if that art was made 400 years ago.

“What is the narrative, and what is the meaning of these great works of art?” said Matthew Teitelbaum, the newly appointed director of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “Audiences are more knowledgeable and more demanding, and there has to be an urgency in the exhibitions we present so we can connect with them in meaningful ways. What do we read on the front page of the newspaper, and how can those issues be reflected through these works of art?”

For those who have paid attention to the Portland Museum of Art in recent years, those words may sound familiar. Director Mark Bessire has been single-minded in his mantra that the museum’s job is to tell the story of Maine through the art it displays. Art provides historical and contemporary context, and it reflects trends and issues that are important in our society.

The new “Class Distinctions” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts attempts to do that through the work of 17th-century Dutch masters. Curator Ronni Baer assembled 75 paintings from the 1600s that reflect class divisions in the Dutch Republic and how the Dutch dealt with poverty, welfare and other social issues.

Regents of the St. Elisabeth Hospital of Haarlem. Frans Hals (Dutch, 1581 to 1585-1666) 1641.Oil on canvas. Frans Hals Museum Haarlem.

Regents of the St. Elisabeth Hospital of Haarlem. Frans Hals (Dutch, 1581 to 1585-1666) 1641.Oil on canvas. Frans Hals Museum Haarlem.

The exhibition reminds us that some issues we are grappling with today are hardly new, and solutions are elusive and messy.

“Every politician and every newspaper is talking about the plight of the middle class,” Baer said. “It has resonance, and it has contemporary relevance.”

When a visitor observed that a portrait of a noble reminded him of Donald Trump, Baer winced. “Please,” she said. “Don’t ruin it for me.”

“Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” includes paintings from the MFA collection and loans from public and private collections from Amsterdam, Paris, Munich and other European cities. There are several masterpieces from Rembrandt on display, including one, “The Shipbuilder and His Wife,” that comes directly from the Queen of England. Two dozen of the paintings have never been seen in the United States.

The exhibition opens Sunday and is on view through Jan. 18.

There are two ways to view this show. One is simply to appreciate the artistic brilliance of the work itself. Rembrandt and other Dutch painters set the standard for realism, with their rich colors, vivid detail and use of light to create tone and mood. During a gallery walk-through, Baer noted Rembrandt’s fine brush work depicting the beard of the shipbuilder. Each hair appears to have been created with a single brush stroke, and Rembrandt highlighted the faces of both figures in the painting by splashing them in spotlights while darkening their clothes and surroundings.

“The Astronomer,” by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) 1668, oil on canvas.

“The Astronomer,” by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) 1668, oil on canvas. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There’s a larger message here, too, if we choose to pursue it. Baer divides the show by class – upper, middle and lower. She hopes visitors discern the distinctions among the classes by the clothes they wear and the activities that engage them. The wealthy wore silk dresses, rode horses and occupied offices of power. Their portraits reflected their stature, because they could afford the most accomplished painters to make their pictures.

The middle class included tradesmen, shopkeepers and women trained in domestic work. Pieter de Hooch’s painting “Interior with Women Beside a Linen Cupboard” shows a mother teaching her daughter how to fold and sort linens, which were among a household’s most valuable assets. We also see paintings hanging on the wall behind them, which indicated upward mobility.

The lower class was distinguished by laborers. We see bread bakers, street musicians and men maintaining their tools. Their clothes are dirty, their homes unadorned. A painting of a prostitute, with her breasts exposed, finds her wearing clothes beyond her status, which Baer explained as an indication of her desire to appeal to higher-class clientele. She tries to present herself as something she is not and uses fashion to do so.

The exhibition closes with a section devoted to where the classes meet and mingle – on the ice for winter recreation, at street fairs and in the markets. These paintings are layered with stories of charity and compassion. Jacob Ochtervelt’s “Street Musicians at the Door” shows a fiddler and hurdy-gurdy player making music for the occupants of a nice home, where a maid who opens the door to the musicians holds the hand of a young girl watching with delight and fascination. Off to the side, the girl’s mother reaches out with a coin in hand, presumably to give to the daughter so she can reward the music makers.

This section might remind visitors of scenes from the popular TV show “Downton Abbey,” when the wealthy Crawley clan ventures out from its estate to go to market, attend a fair or travel to London for business and pleasure. The scenes where they mingle with the other classes are often striking in the TV show. In the MFA exhibition, the paintings that depict the mingling of classes offer similar tensions.

Interior with Women beside a Linen Chest Pieter de Hooch (Dutch, 1629–after 1684) 1663 Oil on canvas *Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Interior with Women beside a Linen Chest, Pieter de Hooch (Dutch, 1629–after 1684), 1663 Oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Most of these paintings were made when the Dutch Republic was the richest in Europe. Portraiture and scenes of everyday life distinguished Dutch art during this time.

Baer began thinking about this exhibition more than five years ago, before the Occupy movement gained traction and economic disparity became a sharp political talking point. In many ways, it’s a happy coincidence that the theme of this show coincides with something that people and politicians are debating, she said.

Coincidence aside, “Class Distinctions” reminds us that art is most effective when it tells a story that’s relevant in our lives. Or we can simply enjoy it for the vision and accomplishments of the masters and the treasures they created.