NICOLAES MAES (Dordrecht 1634 – Amsterdam 1693)
Portrait of a Lady and a Gentleman: A Pair of Paintings
signed N. Maes in the lower right
oil on canvas
34 x 28 1/4 inches (87 x 71.7 cm.)
Private collection, Washington, D.C.
Born the son of a merchant in Dordrecht, Maes was said by Arnold Houbaken to have learned drawing from a mediocre master (‘een gemeeen Meester’) and paintings from Rembrandt. The latter period of tuition probably occurred in Amsterdam around 1650, and was certainly concluded by late 1653, when Maes returned to his native Dordrecht, where he seems to have remained until 1673, when he settled permanently in Amsterdam. According to Houbraken, he journeyed to Antwerp to see paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and others. The date of this trip is usually placed to the early to mid-1660’s.
Maes’s earliest works depict religious subjects and exhibit a strong Rembrandtesque style. Subsequently he executed genre scenes, often of domestic themes, such as old women praying and street peddlers. By 1654, he had begun painting the small-scale domestic interiors which anticipate works by the Delft painters such as Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer. Maes continued to paint genre scenes only until about 1659. The remainder of his prolific and successful career was devoted exclusively to elegant portraiture.
After 1660 Maes became fascinated with the Van Dyckian-French court tradition of outdoor or veranda portraits. By December of 1673, Maes had moved to Amsterdam and for the next twenty years would be one of the city’s most important and fashionable portraitists. In Dordrecht his portraits had tended to be mostly life-size, but after the move the scale became more intimate. With an emphasis on elegant attire in bright colors and poses where sitters appear to be lounging in sunset landscapes, Maes struck a chord with potential patrons.
Our charming sophisticated sitters exemplify Maes’s intent. Drawn presumably from Amsterdam’s wealthy burgher class, their urban reality seems a distant memory. Life in the countryside was perceived as tranquil, contemplative, free of worry, a time to pursue pleasure. Land was highly prized and in extremely limited supply. The second and third quarters of the seventeenth century in Holland saw a rise in the purchasing of country estates by wealthy townsmen, and with the acquisition of an estate came an elevation of social status. If property was unaffordable the suggestion of ownership on canvas could be attained.
The pastoral inclination of the compositions are further underscored by the use of mossy banks instead of chairs, a gentle waterfall and stream in the male portrait, and a garland of flowers commonly associated with shepherdesses in our female’s lap. The orange in the center of the garland is symbolic of a cultivated nature and the hope of a fruitful future. The King Charles II spaniel’s may be viewed as an attribute of fidelity.
The paintings probably date from the 1680’s. There is a Maes, Portrait of a Lady (National Gallery, Ireland) of nearly identical costume, hairstyle, and jewelry thought to date from the late 1680’s. The male sitter is dressed in a silk kimono, the height of fashion in Holland in the 1680’s (see catalogue number 12).