I admit I hadn’t heard of Nicholaes Maes, reportedly Rembrandt’s favourite pupil, so I was very keen to discover his work at the National Gallery at the beginning of March 2020, just before lockdown.
The mid-seventeenth century must have been an exciting time for the young Maes, who left his home town of Dordrecht to go and work in Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam. The great master painter attracted ambitious young artists from all over the Dutch Republic and this being the ‘Golden Age’ (at least the last years of it) in the Netherlands, there was plenty of money to be spent on art and artists.
The exhibition rooms progress chronologically through Maes’s career. Firstly, the focus is on Maes’s ‘history painting’ by which was meant then, stories from the Bible or mythology, which were considered to be the most worthy of themes and sufficiently challenging for artists. Maes’s Adoration of the Shepherd’s 1656-8 shows the heavy influence of Rembrandt, the use of light and darkness to project or dissimulate in darkness, people, objects and interiors. Thus Mary, the infant Jesus and four shepherds are spotlit, as is the building they are sheltering in, with its crumbling plasterwork and exposed brickwork. Indeed it is the building I like most in this composition, also the view of the countryside through the ruined arch. This work is almost a copy of Albrecht Dürer’s 1504 engraving of the same title, which is worth running your eyes over for its greatness.
Even more interesting was room two with Maes’s famous ‘genre’ paintings. ‘Genre painting’ was an artistic movement of the time, which celebrated everyday life. Maes’s interiors, domestic settings with mothers, maids, seamstresses, elderly women, abound. All the compositions are compelling, easy on the eye and of course, beautifully painted. Most notably Young mother with her children 1655 (see title image) A mother has rapped her son with a birch rod to stop him from beating his drum. The baby must not wake! An era where corporal punishment was not frowned upon, and yet this portrait of family life is so relatable and human even though several centuries separate us from this scene.
Hugely enjoyable are the Eavesdropping works. In The listening housewife 1655, the central character is looking almost straight at us as she creeps down the stairs. Her index finger is resting on her lips as if she knows she is doing something she shouldn’t. Meanwhile the clandestine couple is in a backroom in the basement. A man has come upon them with his lantern. These paintings are full of stories which makes them both fascinating and alive. Is the man cavorting with a lady, her husband?
Meanwhile the maid hiding behind a half-drawn curtain in The Eavesdropper 1655 is giving us a half-smile. A man stands at a window holding a pack of papers. It is hard to discern exactly what is happening however the attention to detail, to household objects, makes us spot an upturned watering jug or vase. Is this a metaphor for an upturned household? A household going to rack and ruin.
Before wandering off to the portrait room I stop before the magnificent Old woman dozing 1656, fallen asleep over her reading. An open Bible, an hourglass and the extinguished candle are all symbols of her fragile mortality.
The final room was devoted to Maes’s portraiture. I particularly warmed to Maes’s self portrait. Sporting a tremendous wig, Maes is looking every bit the successful portrait painter he had become aged fifty. He managed to paint nine hundred portraits but he had to abandon the style he had displayed in his genre paintings. His young lady sitters preferred white to brown in their portraits which had to be more colourful to reflect the international obsession for elaborate clothes and refinement. Certain poses had to be struck up, gone were the ordinary eavesdropping maids and housewives and in came something else.
This is a gem of an exhibition, cohesive, instructive and a feast to the eye. Highly recommended to those willing to make the journey into London.
Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age has been extended at the National Gallery. Opening date still to be decided. Entrance free.