Skip to main content

In Rembrandt's footsteps

Image: Nicolaes Maes, 'Christ blessing the Children’, 1652-3. The National Gallery, London © The National Gallery, London

Maes was born in Dordrecht in 1634. He moved to Amsterdam as a young man to study painting under Rembrandt, who attracted aspiring artists from all over the Dutch Republic.

Whilst there, Maes learned to paint ‘histories’ (mainly stories from the Bible or mythology), which, at the time, were considered the most distinguished and ambitious subjects a painter could tackle.

Some of Maes’s early paintings rely on his master’s example, but he quickly developed his own style, introducing lighter tonalities and choosing to depict different moments in a story to create his own version.

Carving his own path

Image: Nicolaes Maes, ‘Young Woman Sewing’, 1655. Harold Samuel Collection, Mansion House, London © Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Maes went on to become one of the most inventive genre painters of his day. His experiments with interior space and the unusual intimacy of his domestic scenes influenced many of his contemporaries, including Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer.

While his masterly command of light and shadow stemmed from his apprenticeship with Rembrandt, his novel approach to genre painting was all his own.

Women protagonists

Image: Nicolaes Maes, 'Two Women at a Window', about 1656. Dordrechts Museum, on loan from the Cultural Heritage Agency 1948 © Dordrechts Museum

Women – young and old, rich and poor – play the lead role in almost all of Maes’s genre scenes. Many of them perform ordinary tasks and household duties, reflecting contemporary perceptions and stereotypes of women in society and the domestic sphere. Some paintings seem to harbour a moralising message, but Maes often deploys humour to give them a light-hearted tone.

The eavesdropper

Image: Nicolaes Maes, 'The Eavesdropper', 1656. The Wellington Collection, Apsley House [English Heritage] © Historic England Photo Library

Maes’s most distinctive contribution to genre painting is his highly original series of eavesdroppers. Their appeal lies in the direct manner in which the eavesdropper addresses the viewer, and the intricate interaction between the main and secondary scenes within the same painting.

Later style

Image: Nicolaes Maes, 'Portrait of an Unknown Family', 1670-75. Thalia Ltd © Photo courtesy of the owner

Shortly before 1660, Maes turned exclusively to portrait painting, devoting the rest of his long career to this highly profitable genre. The artist changed his style so radically that his late work has little in common with his genre paintings from the 1650s, let alone with the darker tonality of his earliest ‘Rembrandtesque’ works.

The artist developed a more colourful and elegant portrait style, reflecting an international trend towards stylishness and refinement that derived from the work of Anthony van Dyck, as well as from French portraiture.

Standardised compositions, poses, costumes and accessories enabled Maes to increase his output and cope with high demand. As one of the most successful portrait artists of his time, Maes died a wealthy man, having painted an estimated 900 portraits.

Be the first to hear our latest stories
From peeks behind the scenes to in-depth looks at the nation's favourite paintings
Sign up