From illicit goings-on in servants’ quarters to portraits of high society, Nicolaes Maes captured life upstairs and downstairs in the Dutch Golden Age.
This exhibition at the National Gallery is the first in the UK devoted to Maes, an artist sometimes pigeonholed as one of Rembrandt’s most famous pupils. The colours, and some of the set ups are similar, and in fact the National Gallery did mistakenly attribute “Christ Blessing the Children” to Rembrandt for a very long time. (No offense to Maes but I’m sure that came as a disappointment).
Through nearly 50 paintings and drawings, the exhibition follows Maes’s move away from paintings of historical and biblical scenes, where Rembrandt’s influence is most clear, to the scenes of Dutch life and portraits of the wealthy that made him one of the most sought-after artists of his time.
It is always interesting to see the “rough draft” of a later painting, and the National Gallery has procured quite a few.
The most delightful pieces are collectively called The Eavesdroppers. Maes excels in capturing the everyday – women gossiping on the street, a girl struggling to thread a needle while sewing, but The Eavesdroppers are a little more saucy.
A housewife stands at the bottom of a staircase with her finger to her lips, having just caught the servants misbehaving. She breaks the fourth wall, looking straight at the viewer with her finger to her lips. Shhh. More than the Maes’ religious period or the grand portraits of the Dutch aristocracy from which he made his living, these are the reasons to celebrate his work.
•Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age is at the National Gallery, London, from 22 February to 31 May.
A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.