Howwould a child know that Jesus was a special kind of adult? In early modern depictions of Christ blessing little children, it’s conventional for even the smallest babies to be aware that there’s something different about this man, their faces turned trustfully towards his as they clutch apples or dolls or their parents’ hands. Nicolaes Maes’s version of the theme in Christ Blessing the Children (1652-53), one of the earliest pieces in the National Gallery’s retrospective (currently closed, but to be extended), displaces Jesus from his traditional spot at the centre of the composition to foreground the little girl he blesses. She gazes off elsewhere, a finger stuck in her mouth, oblivious to her mother trying to get her to turn around and to the meaning of the hand on her head. Above the cluster of figures, light falls on the bemused face of a toddler held up by her pushy father, arms extended like chubby wings as she looks out at the viewer for an explanation of what’s going on.

Maes (1634-93), who was born in Dordrecht and learned his history painting while apprenticed to Rembrandt in Amsterdam, populated his biblical scenes with figures that wouldn’t look out of place in Dutch depictions of everyday life. His histories are full of indications that his interests lay in the world around him rather than in the traditional stories that other people prized. The distracted little girl in Christ Blessing the Children has the same squat proportions, round red cheeks and simple dress as the children in his genre pictures; in Vertumnus and Pomona (c.1655), his only known depiction of a mythological subject, he swaps the conventional buxom Pomona, half-swathed in classical robes, for a thin-faced, harassed-looking woman in clogs, her fruit piled up in a basket rather than scattered in an artful still life. In the Adoration of the Shepherds (1656-58), which Maes copied almost line for line from Dürer’s Nativity engraving of 1504, it’s clear that what he liked about Dürer’s composition wasn’t the holy child but the stable: a fantasy of thatch and gothic arches, edges of ruined brickwork and crossbeams dangling into space. The figures round the cradle, like the mistresses and maids in the domestic interiors he painted during the later 1650s, are illuminated within an architectural cross-section into which the viewer is invited to peer like a voyeur – a form of snooping licensed and encouraged by the figure of Joseph, who stands outside at the well, his head inclined towards the stable as if listening.

Maes understood that the incidental features of history painting – rooms, clothes, children – were the fundamentals of genre painting, where events turn on the relationship between character and domestic space. His depiction of multiple linked spaces allows us to see where his protagonists have come from or are on their way to, providing narrative progression in a single composition. In The Idle Servant (c.1656), for instance, Maes shows us the guest-filled dining room from which the mistress has just excused herself when she discovers her maid snoring in the kitchen, which makes clear why it was a particularly bad time for the cat to have been left to its own devices with the roast duck. This is the pivotal moment in the narrative, the guests at the party ignorant that their dinner is ruined, and the maid about to wake up amid her chaotic piles of crockery.

Maes’s pictures use dramatic irony as a way of making the viewer work to fill in the blanks or supply the punchline. In Old Woman Saying Grace (c.1656), the woman is rendered with such intensity – lips slightly parted; thick brushstroke furrows between her brows; fine shadows on her hands revealing the bones beneath near transparent skin – that we need to look hard to spot what she is oblivious to: the cat with its paw on the tablecloth, poised to sweep the carefully arranged meal onto the floor. In The Sacrifice of Isaac (1653-54), one of the early history paintings, the contrast between Isaac’s livid white body, the black sky and Abraham’s red-toned robes tells us this is the darkest point in the story, the moment of resolve just before Isaac’s sacrifice is called to a halt. There’s no ‘what if’: we know the angel will appear and Isaac will be saved. But the layered construction, with the just-in-time messenger emerging from the clouds at the top of the composition while below Abraham, oblivious, squares up to his task, holds us in the apprehensive pause before divine intervention.

The Lacemaker (1656)

‘The Lacemaker’ (1656)

Maes’s paintings are hypersensitive to their status as looked-at things, and in their self-consciousness they make looking and watching subjects in themselves. Watchers are everywhere in the genre pictures, observing protagonists going about their tasks or locking eyes with the viewer in ways that can be discomfiting. In Young Woman Sewing (1655), the subject is interrupted at her work by a boy tapping on the window; in Woman Scraping Parsnips (1655), a critical-looking toddler leans over her mother, scrutinising her peeling technique; in The Lacemaker (c.1656), another toddler fixes his gaze suspiciously on the viewer while his mother bends over her work. One of the early Eavesdropper compositions, part of a series Maes worked on in the mid-1650s, functions as a kind of pinball machine of ricocheting looks, as the old man holding up a lantern for the spied-on couple in the cellar stares pointedly at the viewer, and we in turn meet the confidential glance of the eavesdropping mistress.

All the looking in Maes’s work teaches us to see his paintings as miniature dramas, rather than trying to read them like texts for symbolic meaning. There’s a curious flatness to the few moral symbols Maes does include in his compositions: the dusty-looking extinguished candle and the half-hidden hourglass in Old Woman Dozing (c.1656), for example, are appropriate vanitas motifs, but they’re dutiful rather than eloquent, as if he is drawing attention to their conventionality. In Two Women Talking at a Window (c.1656), the unnoticed dog sniffing at the maid’s salmon steaks (lesson: gossiping makes you neglect your responsibilities) is the least interesting part of the composition, made insignificant by the charisma and warmth of the women’s conversation.

The Eaves­dropper (1655)

‘The Eaves­dropper’ (1655)

Maes’s interest in theatricality was derived in part from Rembrandt, whose history paintings use trompe l’oeil curtains and illusion frames to blur the boundary between the space of the picture and the real-world space of the viewer. In Rembrandt’s Holy Family with a Curtain (1646), the intricately carved ‘frame’ looks like a proscenium arch, and the curtain that falls across the scene marks the line between declared representation and something that announces itself as real. Maes borrows the curtain and illusion frame for his Young Woman at a Cradle (1653-55), which positions the viewer as if on the threshold of a real space, just beyond a scene we aren’t allowed to enter. In the most sophisticated Eavesdropper composition, a painting from 1655 that shows a maid listening in secret to a private exchange, the illusion curtain prevents us from seeing the person the mistress of the house is haranguing. Unlike the other Eavesdropper paintings, which allow the viewer full sight of what the furtive protagonist can only hear, this one keeps us in the dark. The audacious decision to obscure a key figure was motivated partly by Maes’s desire to demonstrate his mastery of trompe l’oeil – light reflecting off folds of silk that look real enough to touch – but it’s also a refusal of the easy punchline (it’s the husband!) that his audience might have expected.

Maes’s protagonists resemble the fools of comedies, wry commentators on absurdities and misdemeanours who bring us into their confidence with a conspiratorial finger to the lips. Sometimes the misdemeanours are their own, as when the impish female thief in Sleeping Man Having His Pockets Picked (c.1656) entreats the viewer’s silence with one hand as she relieves her victim of his possessions with the other. In the guise of eavesdroppers, though, their role is to alert us to the deceptions and failings of others: like the fool, they possess an ability to stand outside the social order or slip between its categories. The mistress who spies her maid canoodling with a lover in an Eavesdropper of c.1656 makes her discovery because she ventures below stairs; the maid, meanwhile, who overhears her mistress in the trompe l’oeil Eavesdropper is hovering at the foot of a staircase. Maes seems to have been most interested in movement from above to below stairs: five of the six Eavesdroppers depict mistresses (and in one case a master) who descend to listen in on their servants. In both directions, however, a passage from proper to improper space is involved. Patterns of light and shadow demarcate these boundaries – the foot of the stairs, the glimpsed sky at the entrance to the garden, the dark space before the cellar steps. They signify points of encounter, but also disruptions of order, ripples in the fabric of the everyday.

Maes abandoned this sophisticated play with hierarchy at the end of the 1650s and became a full-time portraitist. Painting clients who wanted to look richer or more established than they were meant playing by very rigid rules: dressing tiny girls in pearls and satins; equipping boys with spears or quivers of arrows to show they were from a family with hunting privileges. But this was also a game that set no limits on aesthetic extravagance, and the lavish Van Dyckian mode Maes worked in during the 1660s and 1670s allowed for a brilliant new jewel-toned palette, whose intensely pigmented colours were achieved by the application of a rich layer of glaze over particular areas of paint. Five-year-old Beatrix van Alphen, the youngest member of a wealthy Leiden family that Maes painted around 1677, is depicted swathed in a trailing crimson gown with a pseudo-classical gold cape, her dark curls crowned by an ostentatious red feather beret. The three children of the Amsterdam doctor Guillaume de Vicq are wearing everything in the fancy-dress box, swamped like tiny sultans in velvet, satin, ermine, feathers and pearls. The de Vicq girls gaze out at the viewer with aristocratic self-possession, but they are still Maes’s creations: their squat round faces, double chins and pink-tinged cheeks smack of the kitchen.

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