Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age (National Gallery, London)

Tucked away on the ground floor of the National Gallery has been an exhibition devoted to Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693), an almost industrial producer of portraits – some 900, apparently – but earlier in his career better known genre pictures. In fact, such is the divide, that some critics have suggested there were two artists on the same name.

One of them was born in Dordrecht, where he might have begun his training – possibly under Samuel van Hoogstraten – and it’s possible that he worked under Rembrandt in Amsterdam, sometime between 1649 and 1653. He married Adriana Brouwers in 1653 in Dordrecht and bought a house on the Steegoversloot in 1658, possibly one he had been renting. He seems to have made a reasonable living, but perhaps provoked by the Rampjaar (Disaster Year) of 1672 (French invasion, war with England) he’d moved to Amsterdam in 1673 and joined the Guild of St Luke. He shifted from genre paintings to portraits, dying a wealthy man in 1693.

Nicolaes Maes Jesus BlessingWhether or not he was taught by Rembrandt, it is clear that some of his paintings draw on the more famous painter’s compositions, although there are also differences. His pictures of older women and men seem to be Rembrandt-y. It might be worth noting that his Christ blessing the Children (1652-53) was attributed to Rembrandt when the National bought it in 1866. The strong diagonals in this picture centre us not on Christ but the top of the child’s head; Christ’s face is illuminated and his red makes him stand out from the brown clad crowd.

Nicolaes Maes, Abraham Dismissing Hagar and IshmaelThe red is a key Maes colour, visible in Abraham’s cloak and Hagar’s hat in Abraham Dismissing Hagar and Ishmael (1653). Hagar and Ishmael look downcast, as well they might, as God has told Abraham to cast Ishmael out so Isaac can be the proper son. (Isaac is going to face being sacrificed, of course.) Rembrandt produced at least one painting on the theme and etchings; in Maes’s painting the diagonals take us from the ambiguous blessing/pushing away hand of Abraham to Ishmael and down to the dog.

Nicolaes Maes CurtainThere are two coloured drawings, The Holy Family with a Curtain, attributed to Maes, which echo a (possible) Rembrandt canvas of the same name, now at the Gemäldegalerie in Kassel. There’s mother and child off to the left, Joseph chopping wood in the background centre right and a cat. “Rembrandt’s” curtain is clearly redder, but that shade keeps recurring in Maes, as does a curtain.

Nicolaes Maes Eavesdropping
Nicolaes Maes Eavesdropper

This is most evident in the various eavesdropper paintings – in the foreground there is a woman, sometimes a maid, sometimes the mistress of the house, engaging us in the content: something is going on in the background, whether it is an argument or an assignation and the people involved don’t know they are being seen or overheard. In some ways, these are compositions that anticipate Vermeer in the different zones of a house being overseen, and I’ve seen plenty of Dutch paintings that play with the perspective like this. Are we meant to judge? Is it warning us that we may ourselves be watched? (Although the example above is a blue curtain, of course.)

Nicolaes Maes Sleeping Man Having his Pockets PickedIn a similar vein, there’s man sleep with booze and tobacco, clearly worn out by his proclivities, and his pocket is being picked. The relationship is not exactly clear – it could be a sex worker and a client, but clearly we are being warned. (Apparently Maes didn’t approve of alcohol or taverns.)

Nicolaes Maes Jacob Tripp
Nicolaes Maes Margarethea

At some point, he pivoted to portraits only, producing a large number over the rest of his career. The catalogue shows us that he had some basic poses for men and women, that must have streamlined processes – it’s possible of course that he had assistants for much of this and he just did the faces. Ironically, many of the names of the sitters immortalised by being painted are lost to us, but there are the Trips whom Rembrandt also painted.

Nicolaes Maes Self PortraitUnlike Rembrandt, there don’t seem to be scores of self-portraits – there a mirror reflection in one case and then just a sober late self-depiction, the stick used to support the brush hand behind his back. (Mahlstick, apparently.)

I was pretty impressed by these – and I note that there are a couple more in the UK not shown here (The Virtuous Woman at the Wallace Collection, several more at the National not on display or in the currently closed Room A.) He isn’t Rembrandt, or even Vermeer, but he’s pretty close.


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