Nicolaes Maes

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Self portrait, ca. 1685

Nicolaes Maes[1] (January 1634 – November 24, 1693 (buried)) was a Dutch painter known for his genre scenes, portraits, religious compositions and the occasional still life. A pupil of Rembrandt in Amsterdam, he returned to work in his native city Dordrecht for 20 years. In the latter part of his career he returned to Amsterdam where he became the leading portrait painter of his time.[2] Maes contributed to the development of genre painting in the Netherlands and was the most prominent portrait painter working in Amsterdam in the final three decennia of the 17th century.[3]


Nicolaes Maes was born in Dordrecht as the second son of Gerrit Maes, a prosperous cloth merchant and soap boiler, and Ida Herman Claesdr. He initially trained with a mediocre painter in his hometown. Around 1648 he went to Amsterdam, where he entered Rembrandt's studio. He remained in the studio of Rembrandt for about five years. He had returned to Dordrecht by December 1653. Here he is recorded making marriage arrangements as he posted on 28 December 1653 the bans of his marriage with Adriana Brouwers, the widow of the preacher Arnoldus de Gelder.[4]

The eavesdropper

A signed and dated picture of 1653 confirms further that he had established himself as an independent artist. Maes continued to reside in Dordrecht until 1673.[3] He was clearly successful as evidenced by the fact that he paid municipal taxes on capital of 3,000 and 4,000 guilders. His high social status is demonstrated by his membership of the local civic guard, in which he reached the rank of lieutenant.[4]

At the start of his career Maes painted biblical subjects, genre scenes and portraits.[3] From the 1660s he dedicated himself almost exclusively to portrait painting.[2]

Two chattering housewives

In the middle or end of the 1650s, Maes traveled to Antwerp in to study the work of Flemish artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens.[5] During his stay in Antwerp Maes is said to have paid a visit to Jacob Jordaens' studio and conversed with the artist at length about painting.[4]

Maes moved to Amsterdam in 1673 where he resided for the rest of his life. The move was likely related to the ready market for portrait specialists after the death of the leading Amsterdam portrait painters Bartholomeus van der Helst and Abraham van den Tempel.[3] The downturn in the art market in Dortrecht and other Dutch cities as a result of the Rampjaar (Disaster Year) of 1672, which was marked by a large-scale invasion of the Dutch Republic by French and other armies, likely also played a role. Maes must have counted on his fashionable portrait paintings to find favor among Amsterdam’s larger population of prosperous burghers.[4] His calculation was correct as Maes was so much in demand as a portraitist in Amsterdam that sitters considered it a favour to be given the chance to have the artist paint their portrait. Hundreds of surviving portraits from the 1670s and 1680s are evidence of his success as a society portraitist.[3]

Despite his long-term residency in Amsterdam starting from 1673, Maes never became a citizen of Amsterdam. Only in 1688, when the municipality demanded a list of members from the Guild of Saint Luke, did Maes register with the Guild, but not as a “burgher” (citizen) but as a resident. Maes suffered from gout in the last years of his life. His wife Adriana Brouwers was buried in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam on 14 March 1690. Maes died not many years later and on Christmas Eve 1693 he was buried alongside his wife. Maes had achieved financial success as his estate included 11,000 guilders in cash, two houses in Dordrecht and three houses in Amsterdam.[4]

Maes had a number of pupils in Dortrecht including Justus de Gelder who was his stepson, Margaretha van Godewijk, Jacob Moelaert, and Johannes Vollevens.[5]


Maes started his career as a painter of biblical and mythological subjects, genre paintings and portraits during the period from 1653 to c. 1660. He later concentrated almost exclusively on portrait painting.[3]

Portrait of a young nobleman with two dogs in a wooded landscape

In his early years as an independent artist in the early 1650s Maes painted a few biblical and mythological scenes. These include the Vertumnus and Pomona (possibly 1653; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), Suffer the little Children to come unto Me (1652/3; London, National Gallery) and Woman of Samaria at the Well (c. 1653; Russell collection, Amsterdam). Maes' biblical compositions were clearly indebted to his master Rembrandt's models but display at the same time an originality in the interpretation of the bible text and iconographic tradition. For instance, in the Dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael (1653, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) Maes portrays the Biblical figure Abraham banishing the handmaiden Hagar along with their son, Ishmael.[6] By showing Hagar's despondency and her son Ishmael's isolated posture the work is one of the most moving renderings of this theme popular with Rembrandt's pupils.[7] Most of Maes' religious compositions are of cabinet size except for the Christ Blessing the Children (National Gallery, London) which depicts lifesize figures.[3]

The virtuous woman

During this early period Maes showed himself to be one of the most innovative Dutch genre painters. He introduced new themes and invented unprecedented expressive poses, gestures and facial expressions.[3] Maes painted various genre scenes set on the domestic doorsteps (for example A young boy receiving alms from an elderly man, 1656, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) and others praising the virtues of good parenting. These works were influential on other Dutch painters such as Jan Steen.[8] Maes adapted Rembrandt's brushwork and chiaroscuro to the scenes of domestic life that were the favourite subject-matter of Dutch genre artists of the third quarter of the 17th century. His paintings of interior scenes of women engaged in household tasks are endowed with a solemn dignity through the play of light and shadow and the limited color palette derived from Rembrandt. Between 1654 and 1658, he created a large number of pictures of spinners, lacemakers and mothers with children that express the contemporary moralistic view of the value of family life and quiet diligence.[3] An example is the Old woman dozing over a book (c. 1656, the Wallace Collection) which depicts a housewife sewing a shirt in a very tidy interior. An open Bible at her side implies that she is also clean and pious in spirit. A little boy at the window may indicate that the composition is a depiction of Proverbs (XXXI, 10-19) about working hard and stretching the hand to the poor and the needy. Maes has thus transformed a simple domestic scene into an evocation of the exercise of dignity and moral uprightness in a true biblical sense.[9]

Maes created some works showing everyday events occurring on the doorstep of a private house such as milkmaids ringing the doorbell or receiving payment or boys asking for alms. Maes was able to bestow on these mundane transactions a solemn dignity. Another theme treated by Maes in the mid-1650s are elderly female figures shown in half or three-quarter length such as an elderly woman saying grace before a modest meal, praying amid vanitas symbols or dozing over a Bible.[3]

Maes' major contribution in the representation of interior space was to treat domestic interiors not as shallow, three-walled boxes but as suites of rooms. These innovations in the structuring of interior space were likely inspired by the new story element he introduced in genre painting.[3] These inventions had an important influence on Delft painters such as Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch in particular in the compositional arrangements of people in interior space. Maes' exterior genre scenes may also have been influential on de Hooch's courtyard views.[8]

Old woman dozing over a book

Maes' earlier portraits tend to use dark backgrounds with the sitters dressed and presented in an austere manner. Maes' mature style developed during the 1660s in response to the Flemish style of portraiture of van Dyck, which had been introduced into the Dutch Republic in the previous decade. From this time onwards, Maes employed staging and accessories often seen in Flemish portraiture. In the 1670s Maes adapted his style to the spirit of the times and placed his models in elegant gardens painted in light tones and with a free brushstroke. These later portraits emphasize the gestures and poses, as well as the clothes and hairstyles of the sitters. His portraits reveal the influence of Flemish and French art.[2] Maes painted hundreds of portraits during his mature period. These were mostly executed in standardised formats: a small rectangular canvas with a half-length figure within a painted oval and a large canvas with a three-quarter-length figure, usually leaning against a prop such as a column, fountain or rock. The setting was often a garden or terrace against a sunset sky. He also created many group portraits of children or families shown at full length in landscape settings.[3] During the 1670s and early 1680s he painted several portraits of children in the guise of mythological figures such as Ganymede, Apollo and Diana, either as single figure or in a family group.[10] He further painted one group portrait of a guild, the Six Governors of the Amsterdam Surgeons' Guild (1680–81, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam).[3]

Selected works[edit]

Four children as Ceres, Ganymede, Cherub and Diana


  1. ^ Variant spellings of name: Nicolaes Maas, Nicolas Maes, Nikolas Maes, Nicolas Maas, Nicolaes Maas, Nicolaas Maas, Nicolaas Maes, Nicholaes Maes, Nicholas Maes
  2. ^ a b c Nicolaes Maes, Portrait of a man at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Nicolaes Maes at Sphinx Fine Art
  4. ^ a b c d e Bakker, Piet. Nicolaes Maes. In The Leiden Collection Catalogue. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. New York
  5. ^ a b Nicolaes Maes at the Netherlands Institute for Art History (in Dutch)
  6. ^ Nicolaes Maes, Dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  7. ^ Nicolaes Maes, The Spanish gypsy at Christie’s
  8. ^ a b Walter A. Liedtke, Michiel Plomp, Axel Rüger, Vermeer and The Delft School, exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum, p. 345
  9. ^ Nicolaes Maes, The virtuous woman at the Wallace Collection
  10. ^ Nicolaes Maes, Pastoral family portrait of four children, personifying mythological figures, including Ganymede, and Diana with a deer, all in a landscape at Sotheby's

External links[edit]

Media related to Nicolaes Maes at Wikimedia Commons