MAES, Nicolaes
(b. 1634, Dordrecht, d. 1693, Amsterdam)

The Idle Servant

Oil on panel, 70 x 53 cm
National Gallery, London

The range of Mae's domestic subjects is large. They show women praying, spinning, sewing, making lace, preparing food, or teaching children - all virtuous activities related to the centrality and sanctity of the home in Dutch society. A few of his pictures have veiled erotic allusions and there are some that call attention to vices. A good natured one in the latter category is The Idle Servant.

The protagonist of the picture is a housewife appealing directly to us to witness the sloth of the sleeping servant who not only left her mess of pots and dishes unwashed but allows the cat to snatch a fowl. The painting's strong chiaroscuro relates it to Rembrandt but Maes's personal contribution is the emphasis he places upon creating the illusion of interior space in which the scene is set. Here the stress on the expanse of the floor is not fully successful - the pots and dishes are dangerously close to sliding off it.

More importantly, he allows us to look from one room to another where conversing women introduce a minor sub-plot. The Dutch call this a kind of glimpse, a 'doorkijkje' (the diminutive of doorkijk = a look or glance). Maes did not invent the motif. It was used expertly as early as the fifteenth century by an artist unimaginatively called Hand G (variously identified as Jan van Eyck, his assistant, or his follower) on a manuscript page that shows St Elizabeth in her lying-in room after the birth of St John the Baptist. Later artists used the motif too, but Maes gave it new life when he painted a number of domestic scenes in settings similar or more elaborate than the one seen in The Idle Servant. All of them share a great sensitivity to the quality of light and atmospheric effects, and some anticipate the glorious interiors painted in Delft by Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch merely a few years later.