Nicolaes Maes

(Dordrecht 1634 – 1693 Amsterdam)

Portrait of an aristocrat

93.5 x 111 cm. (36 x 43 in.)
oil on canvas

Provenance:

Private Collection; sale, Koller Zürich, 1 April 2011, lot 3065, when acquired by the present owner.

Catalogue Entry

Nicolaes Maes was one of the foremost Dutch portrait painters of the second half of the seventeenth century. Born in Dordrecht to a prosperous merchant, he soon moved to Amsterdam, where, between 1646 and 1653, he became one of the most gifted pupils of Rembrandt. During this period Maes specialised in genre scenes, whose style imitated that of Rembrandt so closely that future scholars would struggle when separating the work of the pupil from that of the master. After his return to Dordrecht in 1654, Maes progressively abandoned “Rembrandt’s way of painting, particularly when he saw that he had a real talent for portraiture” – as his first biographer wrote in 17191 – dedicating himself to this genre almost exclusively for the rest of his career. After moving back to Amsterdam in 1673, the artist painted numerous individual and group portraits of the highest members of society, which are still considered today as some of the best ever painted during the Dutch Golden Age.2

The present work is a sober yet arresting portrait of an aged man. The figure is depicted half-length in three-quarter pose, sitting on a red-orange velvet chair. His left arm rests on a table covered by a cloth of the same colour, while his right hand holds one of the chair’s arms. The man’s white hair falls down freely to his shoulders. His outfit avoids any lavish ostentation, consisting in a brown robe lined with golden silk and a silky white scarf. The sitter looks out of the canvas to his right, as if someone or something suddenly caught his attention. The portrait is framed in the upper corners by two deep-red curtains. In the background, on the right, stand two stone columns and a window reveals a light-blue sky with white clouds.

Fig. 1. Johannes Vermeer, The Geographer, oil on canvas, 52 x 45.5 cm., c. 1668-1669, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.

Fig. 2. Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, oil on canvas, 51 x 45 cm., 1668, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Although the identity of the Portrait’s sitter still remains unknown, his apparently sober outfit suggests he was actually a person of means. The man had good reason to opt for this garment: it would have been immediately recognised by viewers as a Japanese kimono. Such garments were introduced to Holland during the seventeenth century by Dutch ambassadors, who received kimonos as gifts by Japanese shoguns whenever a trade agreement was signed in Tokyo. Since 1640 until about two centuries later, Holland was the only European state to have a direct commercial relation with Japan, the Dutch East India Company importing exotic goods, such as sake, porcelainware and kimonos, which were often commissioned from Japanese tailors for export.3 By the 1680s, kimonos had become some of the most fashionable objects in Netherlandish fashion and a symbol of high social status, fetching fabulous prices when sold at auction.4 Not only merchants, but all eminent male members of society enjoyed being portrayed wearing these garments, which gave them an allure of wealth and social prestige. Even in the limited production of one of the greatest Dutch Golden Age painters, Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), one can find examples of men wearing kimonos (Fig. 1 and 2). Maes himself often painted his sitters in Japanese robes, as in the Fogg Museum’s A Family Group (1680s, Fig. 3). While the three female figures are depicted in elaborate, formal outfits, the head of the family wears a kimono identical to that in the Portrait (Fig. 4). Even in his own self-portrait, Maes looks at us confidently in his loose, brown kimono (Dordrecht Museum, Fig. 5).

Fig. 4. Nicolaes Maes, A Family Group, (detail) oil on canvas, 109.5 x 108.8 cm., c. 1680, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Louise E. Bettens and Friends of the Fogg Art Museum Funds.

Fig. 3. Nicolaes Maes, A Family Group, oil on canvas, 109.5 x 108.8 cm., c. 1680, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Louise E. Bettens and Friends of the Fogg Art Museum Funds.

The Portrait of an aristocrat is one of the several portraits of Dutch aristocrats and burghers dressed in stylish clothing, which Maes painted from the late 1650s onwards. Following his return to Dordrecht, the artist abandoned Rembrandt’s style and initiated a new fashion of portraiture patterned on Flemish models, which he possibly encountered during a trip to Flanders between 1665 and 1667.5 Maes started to pay special attention to his sitters’ poses, hairstyle and clothing after looking specifically at the work of Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). From Van Dyck’s portraiture, Maes derived the use of columns and red curtains as backdrops – meant to enhance the nobleness and wealth of the portrayed – as well as the presence of a landscape visible behind these columns or through a window. After encountering Van Dyck’s oeuvre, Maes progressively abandoned the strong chiaroscuro characterising his earlier works, embracing a lighter palette, along with a broader handling of paint. This is exemplified in the present work by the sitter’s hair and the red-orange velvet, masterfully rendered with fluid brushstrokes conveying a sense of smooth texture and softness.

Fig. 5. Nicolaes Maes, Self-portrait, oil on canvas, 63 x 50 cm., c. 1685, Dordrecht Museum, Dordrecht.

The present piece could therefore be dated with certainty to after the 1660s, possibly to the 1670s or 1680s. A visual comparison between the Portrait and other works by Maes seems to reinforce such a hypothesis. Its composition, consisting of a seated man with his right hand holding one of the chair’s arms and curtains framing the scene, can be found in other works from the period, such as the Portrait of Nicolaes Van de Velde, mayor of Leiden (Private Collection, Fig. 6). The distinctive rendering of the sitter’s left hand, with the middle and ring fingers more bent than the others, the index finger slightly raised, is characteristic of many portraits Maes painted during those decades. A clear example is The Portrait of a Lady from 1682 (Columbia Museum of Art, Fig. 7), where the woman’s right hand is closely reminiscent, although specular, of that of the Portrait’s sitter.

As most of his Dutch contemporaries, Maes was often commissioned with the execution of separate portraits depicting the patron and his wife to be hung as a pair, often on either side of a fireplace.6 This is the case, for example, of the portraits of merchant Jacob Trip and of his wife, Margaretha de Geer (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Fig. 8 and 9), as well as the Portrait of a gentleman and the Portrait of a lady, today at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts respectively (Fig. 10 and 11). Considering that, as epitomised by these examples, in Dutch seventeenth-century portraiture the husband invariably occupied the panel to the viewer’s left, his body slightly turned towards the right, the present work might have been conceived originally as the pendant of another portrait depicting its sitter’s wife.

Fig. 7. Nicolaes Maes, Portrait of a Lady, oil on canvas, 1682, The Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, USA.

Fig. 6. Nicolaes Maes, Portrait of Nicolaes van de Velde, oil on canvas, 78 x 63,5 cm., 1675 – 1699, Private collection.

The Portrait of an aristocrat strikes the viewer for its naturalism. The artist paid particular attention to depicting the features of an aged man, highlighting his wrinkles and imperfections. The sitter’s gesture of suddenly looking outside the canvas underlines the momentary quality of the portrait. One of the main innovations of seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture was the representation of a single moment in time, catching the figure while performing an instantaneous gesture or movement. Such a new interest in liveliness was grounded in a new perception of temporality determined by an internalisation of daily experience of time. Due to the development of accurate pendulum clocks and to an increase in commercial life, time started to be perceived subjectively by the individual no longer as an abstract realm but as broken into distinct moments throughout the day. By catching the sitter in an animated, instantaneous moment, Maes intensified his presence while simultaneously making the viewer, at the time as well as today, aware of his own viewing process and conscious of his own time.7

Fig. 8. Nicolaes Maes, Portrait of a Jacob Trip, oil on canvas, 88 x 68 cm., ca. 1660, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Fig. 9. Nicolaes Maes, Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip, oil on canvas, 88 x 68 cm., ca. 1660, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

 












Fig. 10. Nicolaes Maes, Portrait of a Gentleman, oil on canvas, 115 x 94 cm., 1670s, James E. Roberts Fund and Contributions, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis.

Fig. 11. Nicolaes Maes, Portrait of a Woman, oil on canvas, 115.9 x 95 cm, 1670s, Gift of Mrs. W. Scott Fitz, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.




























1 A. Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen, (Amsterdam: 1719), II, 273-274.
2 For the artist’s catalogue raisonné, see K. Léon, Studien zu den datierten Gemälden des Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693), (Petersberg: M. Imhof, 2000).
3 For a detailed study on the commercial relations between Holland and Japan, see G. K. Goodman, The Dutch Experience, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013).
4 S. Slive, “A Family Portrait by Nicolaes Maes,” in Annual Report (Fogg Art Museum), no. 1957/1958, p. 38.
5 H. Wichmann, "Nicolaes Maes," in Thieme Becker, Allgemeines Lexicon der bildenden Kunstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, Vol. XXIII, (Leipzig, 1929), p. 546.
6 For a detailed study on Dutch seventeenth-century marriage portraiture, see D. R. Smith, “The Dutch double and pair portrait: studies in the imagery of marriage in the seventeenth century,” Phd. diss., Columbia University, 1978.
7 A. J. Adams, “Temporality and the Seventeenth-century Dutch Portrait,”in Journal of Historians of Netherlandish art, Vol. V, issue II (Summer 2013): https://jhna.org/articles/temporality-seventeenth-century-dutch-portrait/

 

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