NICOLAES MAES, Rembrandt’s Versatile Pupil at Mauritshuis in The Hague

The Eavesdropper (details) Nicolaes Maes, c 1656, Wellington Collection, Apsley House (English Heritage), London; courtesy Museum Mauritshuis

The Mauritshuis offers visitors an exhibition on one of Rembrandt’s most versatile apprentices. Not Govert Flinck, nor Ferdinand Bol, but Nicolaes Maes. Raising an eyebrow?

This Dutch Golden Age painter has been nearly forgotten. For far too long, Maes was eclipsed by his master. This is the first major exhibition in the Netherlands, focussing solely on Maes and aiming to grant him his special place – away from Rembrandt’s towering shadow.

This exhibition contains over thirty of Maes’ works, from three different genres. Early in his career, Maes painted Biblical and historical scenes. Some may have been created while Maes was still working in Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam.

Rembrandt’s influence can be detected in works like Maes’ charming Christ Blessing the Children, loaned by the National Gallery. Another work was long thought to be by Rembrandt: the thoughtful The Apostle Thomas, loaned by the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel.

After studying with Rembrandt in Amsterdam, Maes returned to his hometown Dordrecht. The second range of works in this exhibition illustrate how versatile and inventive Maes was. These are examples of Maes’ genre paintings, much loved by English museums and private collectors.

These include what may be a “tronie”. Research shows, Maes altered his Girl at a Window into the pensive young woman we now see. Reminded of works by Vermeer, or Pieter de Hoogh? Correct: Maes inspired these Dutch Golden Age painters.

The genre works merit a good look. Take for instance his The Idle Servant. Overcome by tiredness, she has fallen asleep. One can nearly hear her snoring! Next this sleeping servant stands her mistress.

She was clearly entertaining friends, sitting in the background. Likely, the merry company had to wait too long for refreshments and the mistress went down to the kitchen. On discovering what has happened, she shares her merriment with people admiring the scene – but what is happening to the right of this sleeping maid?

Maes seems to have improved such themes, while also invented a particular one. Three works focus on this specific theme. A person quietly eavesdropping on whatever is going on in the background of the work. Interacting with the viewers, this person puts a finger to the mouth, ensuring the viewers become accomplices – who are granted a clearer view of whatever is going on.

The last selection of works show how Maes reinvented himself – again. The year 1672 was a disastrous one for the Dutch Republic. Was it the competition from a young Vermeer, or de Hooch? Or regional clients, no longer able to afford buying Maes’ works? He left Dordrecht for Amsterdam, where he specialised in portrait painting.

The two pendants from the Metropolitan tell a sad story. Curator Ariana van Suchtelen explained, these are engagement portraits. Sadly, the dates underneath them explain, why this couple never married. Like a few other exhibited works, these two are in their original, stunning frames.

The selected portraits show, how Maes evolved. Compare an early work or the portrait of Margaretha de Geer, to two later portraits of children wearing fancy costumes, while surrounded by animals. One understands why clients flocked to Amsterdam to have their portraits painted!

The exhibition reopens at the National Gallery in London in 2020. The display will slightly differ, showing a few different paintings, as well as sketches and studies by Nicolaes Maes – all thanks to generous loans from museums and private collectors, as well as Dutch and English sponsors.  Kate  15th October 2019

NICOLAES MAES, REMBRANDT’S VERSATILE PUPIL continues at Mauritshuis until 19th January