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

Christ Blessing the Children

Oil on canvas, 206 x 154 cm
National Gallery, London

Born in Dordrecht, Maes went to Amsterdam in about 1650 to study with Rembrandt. He was back in his native city by 1653 and stayed until 1673, when he returned to settle in Amsterdam. By 1654 he had abandoned Rembrandt's way of painting in favour of small domestic interiors depicting the life of women and children. They differ from similar subjects painted by de Hooch in their extensive use of glossy black and warm reds, and the strong contrasts between light and dark, but some share de Hooch's interest in views into another room or space - although we don't know of any direct connection between the two painters. From 1660 Maes confined himself to portraiture, in time adopting the elegant French style favoured in Holland in the latter part of the century.

The attribution of this huge picture has been the subject of much debate, but it is now generally accepted as an early work by Maes painted either during his time in Rembrandt's studio or just after. One of his two surviving preparatory compositional sketches is loosely based on Rembrandt's famous Hundred Guilder Print. Both works illustrate a passage from the Gospel of Saint Matthew: 'Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven' (19:13-14).

In Maes's picture dark browns and blacks are enlivened with touches of cream and red - most striking in the cheeks of the little girl on whom Jesus has 'put his hands' and who turns around shyly and uncomprehendingly, finger in mouth. Her school slate hangs at her side - for these are seventeenth-century Dutch mothers and children who crowd around Jesus, although he, like Saint Peter standing rebuked behind the tree and the man lifting up the child (a disciple removing an infant, or a father jumping the queue?), is wearing 'timeless' dress. The young man awkwardly squeezed in at the left is likely to be a self portrait, a reminder that this picture is dated to Maes's late 'teens. He has followed all the precepts for monumental narrative painting - the full-length figures on the scale of life, a significant and elevated biblical story, the poses and emotions of all the figures carefully delineated, the lights and darks disposed so as to highlight Jesus and the children - yet something genre-like and sentimental keeps breaking through. Whether because most patrons with space on their walls for a canvas of this size wanted something loftier than the homely figures depicted here, or whether Maes himself realised that 'history painting' was not what he wished to do, he was never again to attempt a picture on this ambitious scale.