In the painting “Christ Blessing the Children,” earthly browns and pockets of red dominate the divinely touching scene of Jesus blessing children whom their parents so eagerly present to him.
The girl being blessed by Christ appears to hold an apple, perhaps symbolic of the original sin when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The girl seems distracted by something in the distance. As she appears to pull away from Christ, he gently pulls her toward his divine blessing. These subtle gestures allude to the fact that the sins inherent in the human world pull us away from our innate divinity. Only faith in the divine offers us salvation.
To the left of the painting, a mother holds her babe who, yet untainted by the world, looks up to the heavens almost knowingly feeling such divine grace.
The picture is so reminiscent of Rembrandt’s subject matter and painterly approach that when the National Gallery in London acquired “Christ Blessing the Children” in 1866, the painting was attributed to Rembrandt rather than the real painter: Rembrandt’s student and fellow Dutchman Nicolaes Maes.
Regarded as one of Rembrandt’s most important students, Maes (1634–1693) studied in Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam sometime between 1649 and 1653. And although Maes’s paintings from that period reflect his master’s hand, Maes moved on to a different oeuvre and often to a far more colorful palette after he departed Rembrandt’s tutelage.
An Influential Dutch Master
Maes found fame in his own right. His pioneering genre paintings depicting Dutch interiors with intimate, and sometimes humorous, domestic scenes directly influenced the Dutch painters Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. And Maes’s portrait paintings—he painted around 900—were in high demand, making him one of the most sought-after portraitists in late 17th-century Holland.
The exhibition “Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age,” at the National Gallery in London, explores Maes’s art through 48 paintings and drawings. It is the first international exhibition on Maes alone. The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery and the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, where the exhibition premiered. The London exhibition is supported by The Thompson Family Charitable Trust.
Divided into three rooms, the exhibition reflects the three distinctive periods of Maes’s artwork: the historic and biblical scenes he painted at the start of his career, the genre paintings (domestic scenes) he painted primarily in the mid-1650s, and the portraits he painted exclusively from just before 1660 until his death.
Maes was born in Dordrecht, Holland; his father was a cloth merchant. Fine textures, used in different ways depending on the subject, feature prominently in many of Maes’s artworks. For instance, in his 1655 painting “The Eavesdropper,” a fine blue-green satin or silk curtain hangs open, revealing a servant descending a staircase as she gestures to the viewer to keep quiet while she listens in on her mistress. The curtain allows a peek into another world and also indicates the homeowner’s wealth.
Later, in Maes’s portrait paintings, immensely fine fabrics clothe the wealthy owners who peer out of the paintings. The attention Maes pays to the rendering of these fabrics is no less than that in his earlier, everyday scenes where sumptuous fabrics look silky to the touch.
Maes painted these genre paintings after he left Amsterdam and Rembrandt’s studio and returned to Dordrecht. His genre paintings seem like theater scenes, where his subjects whisper out of the painting to gain the viewer’s approval of their wrongdoing or to challenge the viewer’s morals. For instance, in his famous eavesdropper paintings, women gesture to viewers to “ssshh!” as they catch others partaking in immoral activity. Or we viewers disturb a woman’s own unrighteous behavior. For instance, in the painting “A Sleeping Man Having His Pockets Picked,” a mischievous servant almost makes the viewer her accomplice as she jovially gestures for silence while she reaches over to pick a gentleman’s pocket. And in the painting “Two Women at a Window,” a maid stops working to gossip with a friend through a window, unaware that a dog is salivating at the salmon steak she carries.
In addition, many of Maes’s genre paintings effectively convey traditional feminine virtues that were held in high esteem. Women are pictured diligently carrying out their daily chores, such as a woman engrossed in embroidery or a girl concentrating hard to thread a needle.
Other paintings show often-humorous scenes of idleness or exhaustion after a hard day’s work: An accountant falls asleep during her accounting; a maid sleeps soundly surrounded by fallen pots, as she appears to have fallen asleep while carrying earthenware to the kitchen.
Maes returned to Amsterdam in 1673, where he began to concentrate on painting portraits in a style similar to French portraiture and that of the preeminent Flemish portrait painter Anthony van Dyck.
Maes’s portraits often included fantastical costumes and idealized backdrops of parklands or ancient influences such as the mythological Greek huntress Artemis, known for her virginity, who seems echoed in his portrait of a girl with a deer. Clothed in an incredible blue dress, reflecting the color of many Madonnas depicted in Renaissance paintings, the girl looks serenely and assuredly out of the painting. Her gaze and the stag’s piercing eye contact with the viewer startlingly capture attention.
The painting is one of a pair. The other painting is of the girl’s brother, who could be construed as Apollo: The boy gaily bounds in a magnificent orange satin costume, while he balances a bird on his hand and carries a quiver of arrows on his back.
Another fascinating aspect of the exhibition is that some of the paintings are in their original 17th-century frames, which rarely survive. Those frames allow viewers insight into how the sitters wanted to be portrayed. The portrait of Simon van Alphen is a particularly dashing example, both in the enigmatic subject and the simple, elegant frame.
Overall, the exhibition “Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age” lets visitors view the versatility of Maes’s artistry as he moved beyond Rembrandt’s influence and made his distinctive mark on Dutch genre painting and portraiture.
To find out more about the exhibition ‘Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age’ at the National Gallery, in London, which runs until Sept. 20, visit NationalGallery.org.uk