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

Old Woman Dozing

Oil on canvas, 135 x 105 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

This domestic scene - a superb example of the Dutch genre tableau - also has, though less obviously for a modern viewer, a moralising purpose as an allegory of sloth or laziness. An old woman has fallen asleep while reading. In her heavily veined right hand, resting on an open book on her lap, she holds a pair of reading glasses. Here the artist not only depicts tellingly a universally recognisable scene of human behaviour. Using pictorial language which would have been immediately understood by a 17th century Calvinist, he expresses, via a number of objects in the room, a jjudgment - and a highly negative one at that - about this behaviour. This verdict contrasts sharply with the positive feelings of modern viewers, who are inclined to project their emotion or tenderness into the artist's intentions when looking at his model. In particularly older viewers, who will soon be called to give a reckoning of their deeds at the Last Judgment, are sharply reminded of the severe punishments that await them after their death if they forsake their daily duties. A key on the wall points revealingly to a page in an open Bible on the table, where the name of Amos, a prophet of doom, is clearly readable. An hourglass in which time is passing props up the heavy book. Neither age nor tiredness, following on a spiritual effort, can excuse the capitulation to a human weakness. The call to be constantly awake and vigilant is directed not only at the spiritual individual but also at citizens in their daily activities.

On the corner of the red cloth-covered table, a lace cushion, with light falling onto it, draws our eye. This symbol of domestic industry has been pushed aside by the woman. This deeper meaning was repeated and supplemented in other paintings with similar motifs from the same period, Experts date this early work, in which Rembrandt's influence can be clearly felt, at around 1656.