DUTCH MASTER OF THE GOLDEN AGE
THE NATIONAL GALLERY until 31 MAY 2020
REVIEW by KATHLEEN BONDAR
When the great Dutch master Nicolaes Maes (1634 - 93) left Rembrandt’s studio, he returned to his native city of Dordrecht and spent time painting domestic scenes. Most of Maes’ subjects were women from the merchant classes and their maids. They were perfect for the artist’s gaze, captive indoors and busy sewing which, after all, required sitting still.
At the National Gallery this middle period in his career is aptly entitled “Imagining a Female World”and just as aptly sited between Maes' early period under Rembrandt and his later period when he cashed in on his success painting the wealthy.
Alongside paintings of women from upstairs downstairs (mistress and servant) are three famous eavesdropper paintings. The eavesdroppers are renowned for “breaking the fourth wall”. The subjects look directly at the painter and viewer encouraging our pact in their minor transgressions. They are poised on steps or behind drapes, listening playfully. What is equally striking is the age of the housewife in The Listening Housewife 1655, a startlingly young teenager.
Other studies show women sewing and lace-making, selling milk, minding children or simply leaning at a window contemplating a bigger world outside. These are idyllic household scenes, neat and tidy, pure light from windows and candles glowing upon women preoccupied in quiet duties, belying the slog and chaos of housework and raising children.
Both artist and muse must have benefited from these tranquil occupations given the lengthy process of painting and being painted, but there is a sense that time stood still for these women. Young Woman Sewing 1655 alongside The Old Lacemaker 1656 suggests an uneventful existence for women young and old, spanning the decades.
It’s curious how the women have been described, Old Woman Dozing and The Idle Servant, suggesting they are lazy or neglecting duties when perhaps they are simply exhausted from housework (and posing). The Account Keeper 1656 is described as "dozing" suggesting "idleness and sloth" when in fact, given the hefty tomes, it looks as if the older lady is intent on something more than household accounts. Is this the first painting of a businesswoman?
At any rate the still and dutiful lives of these women restricted indoors, afforded Maes the opportunity to produce some of the most sublime paintings of the seventeenth century as well as forging a path for other interior masters such as Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch.
Turning back to Maes’ early period under Rembrandt are the historical and biblical scenes. Maes learnt to copy the master’s compositions and, in this gallery, we can see the initial sketches and drawings which became impressive oils including Sacrifice of Isaac 1653 (just before the angel halts proceedings).
The last period shows Maes’ skill not only as a portraitist but his business acumen when he forged his own wealth by painting the rich. He must’ve earned a fortune from the van Alphens, four of whom are reunited in the exhibition.
Worthy of mention too are the rare and original seventeenth century picture frames showcasing the celebs of the period. These trophy frames come with gilded doves, gods and trailing plants. See Portrait of Ingena Rotterdam 1676 and Portrait of Jacob Benckes 1676 to commemorate the betrothal of the sitters. In the same gallery “Portraits, Elegance and Refinement” is a self-portrait of Nicholaes Maes,1680-85. This sits alongside Maes’ patrons, wealthy silk merchants, painted when he was about fifty years old, signifying his standing and illustrious career.
Top Images: The Eavesdropper 1655; The Listening Housewife (The Eavesdropper) 1655; The Eavesdropper 1656
Middle Images: The Account Keeper 1656; Young Woman Sewing 1655; The Old Lacemaker 1656
Bottom Images: Portrait of Jacob Benkes 1676; Portrait of Beatrix van Alphen 1677; Portrait of Ingena Rotterdam 1676