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Eight Dutch Masters: Nicolaes Maes

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Gabriel Metsu
Old Woman at Prayer, Nicholas Maes
The Lacemaker, Nicholas Maes
The Eavesdropper, Nicolaes Maes
Nicolaes Maes
A Woman Nursing an Infant with a Chicld and a Dog, Pieter de Hooch
Young Girl with a Cradle. Niclaes Maes

Nicolaes Maes
(b. 1634, Dordrecht, d. 1693, Amsterdam)

In about 1648 Nicolaes Maes became a pupil of Rembrandt in Amsterdam, staying there until 1654 when he returned to his native town Dordrecht. Before studying painting with Rembrandt, probably between about 1648 and 1653, Maes learned to draw from a local Dordrecht master. Subsequently, he returned home to embark on an independent career. By the 1650s he had developed a reputation for painting the intimate life of women and children; his finest pictures capture aspects of Rembrandt's tenderness and intimacy. Maes's scenes often include vignettes such as a cat stealing the dinner of an old woman as she prays. By representing an interior as a suite of rooms rather than a three-wall, one-room enclosure, Maes had great impact on the Delft painters Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. In his early years he concentrated on genre pictures, rather sentimental in approach, but distinguished by deep glowing colours he had learnt from his master. Old women sleeping, praying, or reading the Bible were subjects he particularly favored.

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  • Nicholas Maes
  • Rembrandt van Rijn
  • Jan Steen
  • Michael Sweerts

In the 1660s, however, Maes began to turn more to portraiture, and after a visit to Antwerp around the middle of the decade his style changed dramatically. He abandoned the reddish tone of his earlier manner for a wider, lighter and cooler range (grays and blacks in the shadows instead of brownish tones), and the fashionable portraits he now specialized in were closer to Van Dyck than to Rembrandt. In 1673 he moved permanently to Amsterdam and had great success with this kind of picture.

About 1660 Maes began specializing in portraits, becoming wildly successful by abandoning his Rembrandtesque style for the bright colors and studied elegance of Flemish artists such as Anthony van Dyck. Arnold Houbraken's 1721 biography described the transformation: Maes "learned the art of painting from Rembrandt but lost that way of painting early, particularly when he took up portraiture and discovered that young ladies preferred white to brown."

expert opinion: Alejandro Vergara

Maes' taste for trompe l'œil effects was inherited from Rembrandt and it is possible that his interest in perspective in the 1650s sterns from his relations with other pupils of his master, such as Carel Fabritius and Samuel van Hoogstraten. Maes was one of the first interior painters to include views of adjacent rooms in his compositions and to use the compartmentalizing of the interior space to represent the division of functions which existed in Dutch homes of that date. He is also one of the most explicit of seventeenth-century Dutch painters in his representation of the class differences that existed between ladies and the maids who lived in their household, and the different behavior associated with the two groups. His most famous paintings represent maids, either idle or engaged in illicit amorous activities. These images reflect contemporary concerns with the threat that the presence of young unmarried women in the household represented for the morality of the family and the stability of marriage, given that they were the easy target for seduction by the husband and sons. Maes' paintings of mothers with their sons reflect the ideals of behavior and educational methods of contemporary society.

Part of the appeal of Maes' work lies in the combination of humour and dignity which he treats his subjects and in the relation of complicity that he establishes between the figures and the spectator through gestures such as a gaze or a raised finger indicating silence, devices borrowed from the theater. However, what makes Maes a key figure in the history of interior painting is his manner of representing space, which would influence both Vermeer and De Hooch. In Maes' work, the figures are subordinated to the space, which becomes the main vehicle for the story that is narrated.

Alejandro Vergara, Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, Madrid, 2003, p. 210

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