Dutch Master of the Golden Age

When the National Gallery reopened this year, they began with a free exhibition about the little known Dutch painter, Nicolaes Maes. Having learnt from the great master of painting, Rembrandt, Maes produced over 1000 artworks, 900 of which were portraits. This exhibition only contained 50 artworks but managed to provide a detailed journey of Maes’ artistic progress, beginning with historical and biblical scenes and ending with depictions of everyday life.

Nicolaes Maes was the second son of a wealthy cloth merchant Gerrit Maes and Ida Herman Claesdr. He was born in Dordrecht in the Netherlands in January 1634, but there is no record of his childhood. During the 1640s, he received a mediocre art education in his hometown but, unsatisfied he travelled to Amsterdam to train under one of the greatest artists in history: Rembrandt (1606-69).

Maes spent five years in Rembrandt’s studio alongside upcoming artists from all over the Dutch Republic. Together, they mostly learnt to paint histories, usually of a biblical nature, which Rembrandt believed to be a hard genre of painting to achieve. The students were not left to their imaginations; they were encouraged to encompass scenes from everyday life or use props and models. As well as this, Maes and his contemporaries were expected to copy works by Rembrandt as part of their composition training. As time went on, Maes began to incorporate his ideas with a blend of Rembrandt’s, eventually developing his unique style.

It is not easy to put Maes’ earlier works into chronological order because he tended not to sign or date them. His earliest signed and dated painting is Dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael, which he produced in 1653 during his final year with Rembrandt.

Loosely based on an etching by his master, Maes managed to convey the scene in an original manner. The painting shows a scene from the Book of Genesis. Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, is being dismissed along with her son Ishmael. Abraham’s wife had given Hagar to him so that he could produce an heir. Fourteen years later, Abraham’s wife Sarah miraculously gave birth to a boy, Isaac. Concerned that Ishmael would receive her son’s rightful inheritance, Sarah commanded Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. The constrained emotion on both Abraham and Hagar’s faces suggests neither of them was happy with the outcome.

Christ Blessing the Children is considered to be Maes’ earliest surviving painting, although initially wrongly attributed to Rembrandt due to the similarity in style and lack of a signature. It is also of contrasting size to the other artworks Maes produced while in Amsterdam. His paintings were “cabinet size”, but this biblical scene is much larger with a height of 81.1 inches (206cm) and a width of 60.6 inches (154cm).

Maes took inspiration for this painting from the Book of Mark when Jesus says, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:14-15) Following this, Jesus blessed every child in his presence.

The majority of Maes’ surviving early works are religious. Biblical stories include the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), The Death of Absalom (2 Samuel 14), Christ before Pilate (Matthew 27) and The Adoration of the Shepherds (Luke 2). Maes painted the latter after he had left Rembrandt’s studio and used an engraving by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) as a basis. Maes made a faithful copy of the engraving to the tiniest detail. The proportions are exact and the colour and shading he added to the image highlight the holy family and their visitors.

One of Maes’ religious paintings extends beyond the Bible. Using his imagination and traditional beliefs, Maes experimented with portraiture by painting The Apostle Thomas. The apostle, sometimes known as Doubting Thomas, established seven churches in India between AD 52 and AD 72. Maes imagined what the older man looked like during his mission in India and, at first, the portrait appears to be of a reticent elder. Painted in the manner of Rembrandt, Maes indicated the man’s identity with the subtle inclusion of a set square in his left hand. As well as being one of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas was a builder or carpenter, a profession that used a set square for accurate measurements. Some traditions believe Thomas was martyred by a spear that had a head resembling the set square, which has since become his symbol in works of art.

Maes returned to his hometown at the end of 1653 and married Adriana Brouwers, the widow of a Dutch preacher. It was around this time that Maes established himself as an independent painter, but his training was far from over. Maes had not been home long when he travelled to Antwerp, Belgium to study the works of Flemish painters. He particularly admired Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1549-1641), who are the most famous Baroque painters to have come from Antwerp. Painter and tapestry designer, Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), provided Maes with lots of artistic advice during his stay in the city.

During the mid-1650s, Maes moved from history paintings to genre paintings. His contemporaries, Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) and Pieter de Hooch (1629-84) had proved there was a niche market for genre paintings, which likely influenced Maes’ direction.

Generally, Maes’ genre scenes focus on women, but not in a sensual or erotic nature like the Renaissance artists before him. Maes did not discriminate between old and young, rich and poor, but used women of all walks of life as his inspiration.

Many of Maes’ paintings show women at work in the home. In the present day, these scenes reveal the Dutch social stereotypes of the 17th century. Occupations such as sewing and lacemaking were symbols of domestic virtue and humility. Maes usually painted these women alone, using chiaroscuro to evoke the presence of a warm fire or candle, suggesting their work was a peaceful activity rather than a chore.

In contrast to these scenes of domesticity, Maes produced humorous, light-hearted paintings, often with a moralising message. A series of six works known as the Eavesdroppers, show women listening to an incident occurring in another room. The eavesdropper looks out of the painting at the viewer as though making them complicit with the act. Maes also painted the scene the eavesdropper can hear but not see.

In one of the paintings, the woman holds her finger to her lips, asking the viewer to be quiet. She can hear the voice of her maid, who is chatting to her lover through a window. In another, the mistress of the house playfully smiles while eavesdropping on a pair of lovers. A man with a lamp has discovered the couple in the basement, and the woman is eager to hear what happens next. A third painting reveals a woman enjoying the sounds of an argument. Although only one person is visible in the other room, it is easy to imagine he is reprimanding someone hidden behind a curtain.

Another amusing painting is The Idle Servant, which is similar in composition to the Eavesdroppers paintings. Maes has painted two scenes, the smaller of which is visible through the doorway, but it is the larger scene where the action (or inaction) takes place. The lady of the house has come into the kitchen to refill the wine decanter and discovers her maid asleep. Rather than waking her, the lady smiles indulgently at the viewer, indicating she finds the situation rather comical. 

The Account Keeper differs from Maes’ other comical genre scenes in that it only contains one figure. By looking at the painting, the viewer feels as though they are the one to have found someone slacking on the job. The older woman has fallen asleep while sorting out her account books. Critics have read a lot into this painting, suggesting there are many moral messages. Counting money is often a sign of greed, whilst dozing is associated with laziness. The sleeping woman is also a sign of distraction and lack of concentration. This, along with the map of the globe on the wall, may suggest she is preoccupied with worldly affairs.

Maes’ focus on genre painting drifted towards the end of the 1650s and by 1660 he had dedicated himself almost exclusively to portraiture. Tax records indicate Maes was a wealthy man, which suggests he earnt a lot from his paintings. He was also well respected and was a lieutenant in the civic guard.

When Maes first started producing portraits, they were rather austere paintings of typically dressed people against a dark background; not too dissimilar to those by his master, Rembrandt. During the 1660s, Maes was influenced by the Flemish style of portraiture, particularly those by Van Dyck. Maes began to think carefully about composition, paying attention to the furniture and surroundings as much as to the sitter.

Portrait of Margaretha de Greer is a cross between Rembrandt’s style and the Flemish style. Whilst the background is still dark, the details of the sitter and the chair in which she rests is much clearer. Margaretha de Greer (1583-1672) was the wife of Jacob Trip (1576-1661), a wealthy weapons dealer from Dordrecht who Maes painted several times. They came from families that belonged to the most powerful clans in the Dutch Republic. Rembrandt had painted their portraits, which goes to show they trusted his student as much as the renowned painter himself.

During the 1670s, Maes’ style of portraiture changed again. He attempted to lighten the mood by staging the sitting in elegant gardens and introduced props to make the composition more intriguing. He painted his sitters in less rigid poses, as though captured mid-movement. When painting children, Maes often depicted them in the guise of a mythological character and styled the background accordingly.

Portrait of a Girl with a Deer and Portrait of a Boy as a Hunter were both painted in 1671 and could be the portraits of two siblings. Their style of dress implies Maes was imagining them as characters from another period. The girl, for example, wears an elegant silk dress with a low neckline, which was not a typical style in the Dutch Republic. With one arm hugging a small deer and the other holding a large shell, Maes was likely portraying her as the fictional Princess Granida.

Granida was a play by the Dutch writer Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft (1581-1647). Known as an example of pastoral literature, the first part of the play is set in a Persian field where a shepherd and shepherdess were tending their flock. Granida, a princess who had become separated from her hunting party, found herself in their field. After offering her a drink from the stream (potentially in a large shell), the shepherd fell in love with the princess. It is this scene Maes captured in paint.

The identity of the character the boy in the other portrait portrays is less certain. His attire, particular the sandals, imply he is a figure from Roman mythology. Slung on his back is a quiver full of arrows, suggesting he is out hunting with his dog. Yet, sitting on his hand is a bird attached to a leash so that it cannot fly away. The meaning of this is ambiguous. Has he caught the bird, thus showing he is a skilled hunter or is the bird a symbol of something else? Both dogs and birds are known for their ability to learn, which may represent the young boy’s upbringing and education. Likely a robin on account of its red breast, the bird could also be a symbol of spring and rebirth. In some Christian traditions, the robin was a childhood friend of Jesus.

Maes moved to Amsterdam in 1673, where he resided until his death. The art market in his hometown had been hit badly after France invaded parts of the Dutch Republic in 1672. Hoping to appeal to Amsterdam’s bourgeoisie population, Maes took his chances by relocating and was not disappointed. Before long, Maes was in great demand, and many people considered it to be an honour to have him paint their portrait. Maes also attracted many young painters who wished to learn from the popular artist.

In 1677, Maes, at the height of his career, received the commission to paint the portraits of the Van Alphen family. This wealthy family came from Leiden in the south of Holland, which reveals Maes’ painting skills were renowned well beyond Amsterdam. Maes painted individual portraits of the siblings Simon (1650-1730), Dirck (1652-1701) and Maria Magdalena (1656-1723), as well as their niece, Beatrix (1672-1728). The siblings are dressed in antique costumes from an indeterminate era, which was a common trick used in portraiture to make the paintings appear timeless. Maes captured the luxurious, lengthy waves of hair worn by the boys and the hairstyles worn by the girls, which were fashionable at the time, thus giving away the era the portraits were painted.

Whilst these portraits exemplify Maes’ skill, it is not the reason the National Gallery decided to include them in their exhibition. All four paintings are still in their original 17th-century frames. Typically, frames at that time were dark and plain but the ones surrounding the Van Alphen portraits are made from lighter walnut wood, decorated with gilded tin floral ornaments. These frames were purpose made for the paintings, either on the instruction of the family or the painter.

Also in their original frames are portraits of Ingena Rotterdam (d.1704) and Jacob Binckes (1640-77). These were painted to commemorate their betrothal, although they never married because Binckes was killed the following year by the French while defending the Dutch colony of Tobago. The paintings are more formal than the Van Alphen portraits, but it is the frames that makes them stand out. Known as trophy frames, they are elaborately carved and gilded, making the sitters appear to be people of importance. Binckes’ frame is decorated with nautical weapons and instruments, alluding to his position in the Dutch Navy. Ingena’s frame, on the other hand, is decorated with floral ornaments. On top of the frames are figures representing a god (Mars, god of war) and goddess (Venus, goddess of love).

Despite his success in Amsterdam, Maes waited until 1688 to register with the Guild of St Luke. Even then he did not consider himself a citizen of Amsterdam, merely a resident. His reasons for this are unknown but it certainly was not due to a lack of money. By his death, Maes owned 11,000 guilders in cash as well as two houses in Dordrecht and three houses in Amsterdam.

In his later years, Maes suffered from a few physical ailments, including gout. His wife, Adriana, predeceased him in 1690 and was buried in the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam. Maes passed away three years later and was buried next to his wife on Christmas Eve.

Although his name is not so well-known today, Nicolaes Maes was one of the most successful portrait artists of his time, producing over 900 portraits. Combining this with his other artworks, he far surpassed an output of 1000 paintings. Yet, unlike Rembrandt, Maes tended to avoid painting himself. Of all his work, there is only one painting that has been identified as a self-portrait, produced when he was around 50 years old. Reasons for the lack of self-portraits could be because he was a modest man or because he lacked time due to the number of commissions he received.

The exhibition organised by the National Gallery and the Mauritshuis, whilst no longer open, brought Nicolaes Maes to the attention of a new generation of people. Once popular in the 17th-century, Maes had almost fallen into obscurity until his paintings were resurrected in the 21st century. It is time Nicolaes Maes reclaimed his position as one of the most versatile Dutch artists and no longer merely Rembrandt’s student.