It’s like a peep behind the curtain – and curtains loom large in Maes’s paintings. What a witty person Maes must have been. A talented young artist from Dordrecht, he was lucky enough to become a student at Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam and there he honed his phenomenal skill under the tuition of the greatest master.
He clearly had a strong sense of narrative and, when it was most fashionable, came up with visual ideas for telling some of the more obscure bible stories – always a great excuse to show off his interest in expression, drama and an element of surprise. Above is a detail from an early, large-scale painting entitled Christ Blessing the Children. The nervous child clutching an apple is enchanting and feels very immediate.
He moved on to genre paintings and it’s these works which really are the stars of the show. This is where the ‘peep behind the curtain’ really gets going especially with his series of ‘Eavesdropper’ paintings conjuring moment of domestic intrigue which are like whole novels compressed into one enticing scene. Below is the maid listening to a conversation going on upstairs and clearly being very amused by what she’s learning.
The incidental portraits he made of women working are miniature masterpieces. I absolutely loved the images of girl threading a needle – such delicate fingers – the mother tending her baby or chastising her son for making a noise on the drum and waking the baby.
Maes only made these genre paintings for about five years and then, in the 1670s, he started painting portraits of illustrious and wealthy men and women. The style is very different from his early, Rembrandt-influenced work.
Below: a self-portrait made around 1680-85 when Maes was about 50 years old.
The exhibition at the National Gallery is on until 31 May 2020. Admission Free