Nicolaes Maes (1634–93) relished the simple moments of daily life during the Dutch Golden Age. A woman peeling parsnips over a bowl; a young girl threading a needle; a peasant lugging pails of milk to sell on the doorstep. His paintings are sensitive, not showy, and, as you would expect from a pupil of Rembrandt, rendered with the most exquisite use of light.
Maes was apprenticed to the Dutch master for about five years in his teens. He returned to Amsterdam later in life, but worked for two decades in his hometown of Dordrecht, 11 miles southeast of Rotterdam. Several of his paintings, including ‘The Apostle Thomas’ and ‘Christ Blessing the Children’, have wrongly been attributed to Rembrandt over the years. But there is no mistaking Maes’s genre paintings. These, his strongest works, are entirely sui generis. Though they lack the softness of Rembrandt’s pictures they are every bit as well observed — and often funnier too.
As you go round the exhibition at the National Gallery you cannot help but linger over the humorous details. A dog greedily eyes some salmon while his owner chats to a neighbour. A young boy is told off for playing his drum next to a sleeping baby. The floor of ‘The Idle Servant’ is covered in crockery. The girl is supposed to be washing it but has dozed off in her chair. The lady of the house, pointing at her, smiles at us with an amused ‘What is she like?’ expression.
The undisputed highlights of the show are the eavesdropper paintings Maes completed in 1655–7. Most feature cheeky-faced ladies raising their fingers to their lips as if to impart a secret. More animated than many of the subjects of Maes’s portraits, which he churned out from 1660 to keep himself financially afloat, these women encourage us to share in what they have seen. Draw closer and you will spot the maids canoodling with their lovers in the back rooms of the house.
The series has an upstairs-downstairs quality, with the family usually occupying the main rooms, and the servants the scullery. But these spaces are not nearly as well defined as they appear. Maes took delight in having his characters intrude on each other’s domains unobserved. His trick was to shift the staff to the forefront of the action while they attempted to conceal themselves in the shadows. Really, you sense, they could get away with murder. The lady in ‘The Idle Servant’ is certainly not in the least bit cross with her sleeping maid. Such is the atmosphere of the eavesdropper paintings that you doubt that even the masters would bat an eyelid at the trysts we are encouraged to hush up.
This is partly down to the vibrancy of Maes’s palette. Vermeer, whom Maes influenced, captured the serenity of the home in his delicate blues, greys and yellows. Maes opted for joyful reds and greens with flashes of white to evoke the warmth and bustle of the people within it. His colours make every room inviting. You long to draw back the trompe l’oeil curtains in the foreground of his pictures and see what is happening behind them.
Not all of Maes’s characters are up to no good. The majority, in fact, are women engaged in virtuous activities such as sewing, spinning, child rearing and praying. He painted them as they were rather than as they ought to have been. There was no moralising here. Sewing clearly interested him because he liked the way it made a woman flex her hands. Fabric is delicately thumbed. Arthritic fingers curl over skeins and twine around bobbins. He liked those too — a weaver’s pillow with pockets full of spindles is a recurring motif in his paintings.
The home, Maes seems to say, is where life happens. Even as you glance at the gorgeous gables and occasional windmill through the windows of his interiors you feel that the world outside is very far away. The normal goings on of the household clearly obsessed him. It is the fact that we are invited to play a part in them that makes his paintings so enticing. Maes’s great achievement was to show that privacy was all but impossible — and not even very desirable — in a well-functioning Dutch family home. If you’ve visited Rembrandt’s house in Amsterdam and seen the bed in the kitchen you’ll have some idea of what he meant.