A smiling woman is raising one finger to her lips. Dressed in a fur-trimmed jacket, with a set of keys jangling by her red skirt, she stares straight at the viewer as she descends a flight of wooden stairs inside a well-appointed house. Why is she inviting us to hush?
Then the penny drops. To the right, we spy another room, where a maidservant meant to be minding a baby is dallying through an open window with her lover on the street outside. Presumably, the mistress of the house, secluded in her cubbyhole combing her accounts, heard their amorous goings-on. Amused, intrigued, she doesn’t want us to alert them that their tryst has been detected.
This is The Eavesdropper, painted around 1656 by the Dutch Golden Age artist Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), three years after he returned to his native city of Dordrecht following an apprenticeship under Rembrandt. During a long, lucrative career that spanned four decades, Maes, the focus of a free new exhibition of 48 works at the National Gallery, produced more than 700 portraits. At his peak, during the late 1670s when he was working in Amsterdam, he was churning out one or two a week.
Today, though, Maes is remembered principally for several dozen “genre scenes” – a category of art depicting intimate paintings of everyday life that he helped to pioneer and which had a decisive influence upon Vermeer. The most celebrated among this group are the six Eavesdroppers, which he produced during a flash of creativity in the mid-1650s.
The National Gallery is showing three, along with a few preparatory sketches in pen and brush in ink, and a closely related panel in which another smiling, shushing woman, picks the pocket of a slumbering man who’s had too much to drink. All are clever, humorous works of art. Structured around a complex, Escher-like manipulation of space, they break the fourth wall, and ingeniously invoke a sense usually extrinsic to painting – sound.
They also mostly evolve around an erotic encounter, with serving girls about to be caught in the act. One, though, turns the tables and has the maidservant listening in, as her mistress bawls at someone hidden behind a trompe l’oeil curtain. That curtain is important: there’s usually a theatrical aspect to Maes’s genre scenes. If he hadn’t been a painter, he could have been a playwright specialising in farce.
Maes’s genre paintings are delightful – just as you’d expect. He loved painting women of every age and social class: milkmaids, fashionable young mothers, humble old lace-makers squinting through pince-nez from cosy wooden nooks. Even his supposedly moralising scenes depicting dozing grandmothers neglecting their housework exhibit such tenderness that, you suspect, his sympathy must have lain with them. A series of refined studies in red chalk reveals how much care he took over his female models.
The first room, which dramatizes an earlier moment when Maes was still in Rembrandt’s orbit, is interesting from a technical viewpoint. Here, we find the largest painting Maes ever made, Christ Blessing the Children (1652-53), a sweet composition acquired as a Rembrandt by the National Gallery in 1866.
There are also some missteps. The catalogue waxes lyrical over Sacrifice of Isaac (c. 1653-54), which reprises an earlier painting by Rembrandt. But, in Maes’s version, the large angel in the clouds about to stop Abraham from butchering his son, looks like he has a blocked nose, while Isaac’s naked, supine form has all the tension of a teenager unwilling to get out of bed.
The final room, meanwhile, elicits a double-take, as you check to make sure you haven’t walked into a show by another artist altogether. A central mystery about Maes is why, at the end of the 1650s, he suddenly stopped painting genre scenes and concentrated exclusively on fashionable portraiture: a decision that must count as one of the most abrupt gearshifts in the history of art.
Suddenly, we are in a slick, late-17th-century world of preening Lord Snooties in flashy silks. We also find a self-portrait from the 1680s, by which time Maes was a prosperous businessman, hobnobbing with the Dutch elite. In it, he wears an elaborate wig and an ostentatious Japanese gown that he would never have worn while painting.
On reflection, then, maybe the about-turn of Maes’s career isn’t so mysterious: this is what it looks like when an artist takes the money and sells out.
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