28. Nicolaes Maes

Dordrecht 1634 – 1693 Amsterdam

Portrait of a Young Girl with a Roe-Deer, c. 1675

The identity of this delightful Goldilocks is no longer known, but one thing is certain: the little girl came from a wealthy family, probably from the patriciate of one of the larger towns in the rich province of Holland. Evidence of wealth can be found in the fantastical costume inspired by the elegant portraits emanating from the court of France; the taste for these reached the Republic in the 1650s1 and they stayed in fashion even during the period when attacks made by Louis XIV (1638-1715) against the Low Countries became more violent during the 1670s.

The painter Nicolaes Maes made a speciality of this kind of likeness during the last days of his career. He began as an apprentice in Rembrandt’s studio, where he was one of the best pupils. His earliest work shows the influence of his apprenticeship with the master very clearly. When he returned to the town of his birth, Dordrecht, he began by painting genre scenes, history paintings and portraits characterised by the use of chiaroscuro in the manner of Rembrandt. As he advanced in his career, his palette grew lighter and more cheerful with bright colours. This stylistic change, which led a number of nineteenth-century art historians to believe that there were two painters with the same name, became even stronger when Maes returned to live in Amsterdam in 1673. According to his biographer, Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719), his clients helped bring about the change in the painter’s colour schemes because ‘he had quickly noticed that young ladies in particular preferred white to brown’.2 Whether Maes listened to the wishes of his models or whether he developed a new kind of portrait which particularly pleased the Amsterdam elite, the fact is that the painter’s production grew considerably at that time – he must have been in charge of a large studio. Almost 900 paintings have been ascribed to him3, and by the end of his career Maes was very famous and very wealthy.

As the evidence provided by the Johannes Mijtens portrait in this exhibition (Cat. 30) suggests, the appeal of portraits in rural settings had already developed by the 1640s in the Northern Netherlands, particularly at the stathouder’s court and in aristocratic circles in which the art of Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) was popular. Nicolaes Maes was to make it a characteristic of his later portraits with their pastoral scenery. This is the case with our blond girl, presented in a wooded landscape at dusk, accompanied by a roe-deer. She is ladling water from a fountain with a shell, a motif frequently used by Maes in his portraits of children. The spring water may possibly symbolise the purity of the human soul, and thence of the young model.4 The shell probably alludes to Granida, a play written in 1615 by Pieter Cornelisz. Hooft (1581-1647), very popular in the seventeenth century, which recounts the love of Princess Granida and Daifilo, the shepherd. In Act I, the thirsty heroine, lost in a wood, receives a shell filled with spring water from the young man. A large number of Dutch painters have depicted Granida, sometimes in historiated portraits, holding a shell and quenching her thirst. To seventeenth-century spectators, this motif would thus have denoted a pastoral setting. Finally, the roe-deer accompanying the small girl is also a recurrent theme in depictions of children painted by Maes, and contributes further to the bucolic atmosphere of these scenes.5


1See especially Wayne Franits, ‘Young women preferred white to brown: Some remarks on Nicolaes Maes and the cultural context of late seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 46 (1995), pp. 394-415.

2‘[…] hy […] wel zag dat inzonderheit de jonge Juffrouwen meer behagen namen in het wit dan in’t bruin’, Arnold Houbraken, De Groote Schouburg der Nederlandsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen, 3 vols, Amsterdam, 1718-1721 and The Hague, 1753, vol. 1, p. 174. See also Franits, op. cit., p. 395.

3Krempel, op. cit., pp. 38 and 40.

4See Jan Baptist Bedaux in Kinderen op hun mooist. Het kinderportret in de Nederlanden 1500-1700, exh. cat., Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum, Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, 2000, no. 81, p. 284.

5According to J.B. Bedaux, ibid., these roe-deer are in fact a symbol of budding sexuality in children, which has to be curbed by education. The author quotes Karel van Mander who states in the Book of Painters that ‘the female roe-deer by a spring symbolises ardent desire’ (‘de Hinde by een Borne / beteeckent vyerighe gegheerte’). Karel van Mander, Het Schilderboeck, Haarlem, 1604, fol. 128 verso.

6The signature resembles the fourth version listed by L. Krempel, the signature used by the painter after the 1670s (‘Monogrammtypus’); Léon Krempel, Studien zu den datierten Gemälden des Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693), Petersberg, 2000, p. 28.

7The copy of the Mersch sales catalogue now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France bears the following handwritten note in the margin by the lot: ‘3 200 / Montaignac’. Hofstede de Groot 1907-1927 mentions the same buyer (and price). This probably refers to Isidore Montaignac, an expert employed in salerooms at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

8Hofstede de Groot fiche no. 1298302 on the RKD site: https://rkd.nl/nl/explore/excerpts/record?query=1298302&start=0.