signed N Maes (lower right) oil on panel 45.1 x 37.4 cm; 17¾ x 14¾ in.
PROVENANCE With Agnews, London; Seymour Berry (2nd Viscount Camrose); Christie's,Hackwood Park, 20-22 April 1998, lot 771, Sold for 78.100€; Christie's London, 27 April 2007, lot 58
LITERATURE: Krempel, Nicholas Maes, Petersberg, 2000, p. 367, mentioned under F5 (Fruit still life in a landscape, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), and dated to around 1670.
In late 17th century Amsterdam, no one could rival Nicolas Maes (1634– 1693) in the art of portraiture. As one of Rembrandts most accomplished pupils, Maes explored both genre painting and religious motifs before developing his characteristic style of impressive yet sensitive portraits that today can be seen in museums across the world. This portrait of a currently unknown Dutch gentleman is a brilliant example of how Maes refined his ability to capture both the people and fashions of Amsterdam during the last days of the Dutch golden age.
The young man’s face is painted with fresh colors and subtle effects in lights and shadows to convey his youthful yet dignified personality. Notice how the skin tone built up with finely tuned shades of beige, red, pink and light brown and accentuated by the redness of the lips and the dark blue of the eyes. The lush swirls of the hair also contribute a vivid and realistic feel of the expression.
Apart from being born in the town of Dordrecht as the son of a wealthy soap manufacturer, little is known about Maes background and early career. It seems he received his first training by a local master in Dordrecht, but sometime in the late 1640s he relocated to Amsterdam and the studio of Rembrandt. Much like other students of Rembrandt, Maes earlier works rely heavily on the style of his teacher since Rembrandt typically did not encourage his students to cultivate their own style. Especially the drawings of Maes are at times indistinguishable from those of his master. In 1653 however, Maes returned to Dordrecht to marry and later spent time in Antwerp where he studied works by Rubens and Van Dyck, who also became important inspirations. By the 1660s, Maes had largely abandoned the legacy from Rembrandt and painted in more a contemporary style. The radical shift in his artistic expression show Maes determination to develop himself as an artist, and eventually portraits became the main focus for his art.
In his earlier work Maes was interested in genre painting with comical and intriguing domestic scenes. This one is entitled “De luistervink” – the eavesdropper – shows a servant eagerly listening the conversation of her employers. In the collection of Dordrecht Museum.
In this portrait of another young man, possibly Simon van Alphen (1650-1730), we see yet another example of how Maes varied his successful concept of portraiture with again depicting the fashion, facial expression and dramatic background in a unified composition. By courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
After yet again settling in Amsterdam in 1673, Maes would stay here until his death twenty years later. Here, he enjoyed an illustrious career as a portrait painter and esteemed member of the artistic community. In his portraits from this time we find a combination of the influences from Van Dyck and other artists transformed into Maes own unmistakable style. Maes portraits have a high degree of realistic likeness and shows off luxurious robes, furs, jewelry, hairstyles and status symbols. In the background, beautiful gardens or landscape settings were added to heighten the elegance.
This portrait is an excellent summary of Maes unusual talent in portraiture: the subtly painted face hit by a strong light that accentuates the features with soft shadows; the almost invisible play of color that creates the fresh complexion of the skin; the bulging swirls of the hair and the very exclusive garment called “Japonse Rok” in contemporary Dutch – today known as a Banyan, inspired by Japanese kimonos made with silks imported by the Dutch East Indian Company. It is a portrait that tells us of a wealthy and sophisticated young gentleman, well aware of the social and cultural codes that were expected in this time. While the robe with its richly patterned silk is an example of the fascination for the oriental the hair and overall look are typical for European and Dutch fashion. The background with what appears to be an Italian garden with a classical sculpture furthermore underlines the status and ambition of the sitter.
The position of the hand is both symbolically and artistically important for creating a sense of life and bodily presence. The skin tone is beautifully adjusted to contrast against the red, brownish greys and gold of the fabric.
Much remains to be discovered about both the identity of the young man and the context in which this commission was made. Taking in consideration the vibrant cultural life of Amsterdam during this time, these portraits were crucial elements in formulating an identity and establishing or maintain a high position in the society. Apart from being a wonderful work of art in itself; future research may well prove this to be another important key in understanding the life of Nicolaes Maes and this exciting moment in the history of portraiture.
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