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Core Record

Title The Eavesdropper
Collection English Heritage (Wellington Museum, Apsley House)
Artist Maes, Nicolaes (Dutch painter, 1634–1693)
Date Earliest probably about 1655
Date Latest probably about 1656
Signed yes

The woman is tiptoeing down the stairs, her forefinger raised to her lips to indicate silence, while she listens to a lovers' tryst in the room beyond. The motif of the index finger raised to the lips to indicate silence occurs occasionally in the Middle Ages (e.g. Psalm 141 in the ninth-century Stuttgart Psalter), and more frequently from the sixteenth century. It was common especially in compositions of cupids and satyrs spying on lovers, and Nicolaes Maes has used it in the same sly context while changing the setting from classical mythology to contemporary genre.

Identified as the mistress of the house by the weighty keys hanging from her waist, the woman descends the stairs from a small book-lined office, where she has presumably been seeing to the household accounts. In contrast, the young maidservant at right is distracted from her child-minding duties by her lover's ardent caress. With her gentle smile and direct outward gaze, the eavesdropper draws the viewer into the narrative and presents a moral choice between industry and idleness, between domestic virtue and sensual abandon. The use of light comedy to stress a moral lesson is common in Maes's genre paintings, though never so ribald as in works by Jan Steen.

Born in Dordrecht, Nicolaes Maes was probably a pupil of Rembrandt in Amsterdam in about 1650. He was back at Dordrecht before 1654 and remained there until 1673, when he settled in Amsterdam. He painted genre scenes in his early years, but from 1660 he confined himself to portraiture.

Current Accession Number WM 1503–1948
Inscription front c (on paper hanging below shelf in inner room) 'N. MAES. P'
Subject interior; figure; everyday life
Measurements 57.5 x 66.0 cm
Material oil on canvas

Maes painted six variants of this theme: two are dated 1655, one in the Royal Collection (Sumowski 1986, no. 1349; Krempel 2000, no. A4) and one in the Mansion House (Harold Samuel collection), London (Sumowski 1986, no. 1353; Krempel 2000, no. A5); another in the Wallace Collection is dated 1656 (Sumowski 1986, no. 1357; Krempel 2000, no. A16); and a fourth, belonging to the Instituut Collectie Nederland, on loan to the Dordrechts Museum, bears the date 1657 (inv. NK2560; Amsterdam 1976, no.34; Sumowski 1986, no. 1370; Krempel 2000, no. D14). The Wellington picture also originated at this period, probably about 1655–56. Two drawings in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam – one of the woman, the other of the whole scene but with a man coming down the stairs – may be connected with this composition (R.63, R. 64; Sumowski 1984, nos. 1770, 1873x respectively).

For the motif of the finger raised to the lips to indicate silence see for example, the illustration to Silentium in Alciati's Emblemata (1531) and as an attribute of Harpocrates, god of silence, see K. Langedijk, ‘Silentium', Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, XV, 1964, pp. 3–18; Amsterdam 1976, for further lit.

Maes's broadly theatrical appeal to the viewer is also reminiscent of Victorian narrative painting, and, not surprisingly, the eavesdropper was a popular subject in the nineteenth century: an example of a similar scene by Hubert van Hove is in the V&A Museum (no. 1540–1869; Catalogue of Foreign Paintings, London, 1973, II, no. 110).

The first record of WM1503 and its companion (WM1506) describes them (respectively) as ‘Hearing' and ‘Sight' from a series of the Five Senses. Although this ‘series' may have been assembled well after the paintings were made, Krempel's (2000) proposed reconstruction merits consideration: in addition to the Wellington pictures, Woman plucking a Duck (‘Taste'; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 44-9-4; Krempel 2000, no. D32), Couple on a Terrace (‘Smell'; Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, WA1917–1; Krempel 2000, no. D31) and The Naughty Drummer (The Family of the Artist) (‘Touch'; Madrid, Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, 1930.56; Krempel 2000, no. D27). All are similar in size and approximate date. Allegories of the senses were enormously popular in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; with the rising popularity of genre painting during the period they were often presented in the guise of merry companies, with elegant couples enacting the distinguishing features of each sense, or in low-life genre scenes emphasising the baser aspects of each (see H. Kauffmann, ‘Die Fünfsinne in der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts', in Kunstgeschichtliche Studien zu Dagobert Frey, Breslau 1943, pp. 133–57). Maes's paintings tread a determinedly moderate path, focusing on the quiet sensory pleasures of the domestic realm; at the same time they accommodate other interpretations as well (on the Ashmolean painting as an allegory of Spring, see Robinson 1996, pp. 195–203).

Maes's intricate paintings of Eavesdroppers of 1655–57 are among the earliest in Dutch art to show views into other rooms containing part of the narrative. Pieter de Hooch was experimenting on these lines in Delft at about the same time, but there are no dated pictures by him before 1658 and it is possible that it was Maes who pioneered this ambitious compositional device.

For Maes see W.R. Valentiner, Nicolaes Maes, Stuttgart, 1924; W. Sumowski, Drawings of the Rembrandt School, VIII, New York, 1984, pp. 3951–4489; W. Sumowski, Die Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler, III, Landau, Pfalz 1986, pp. 1951–2174; L. Krempel, Studien zu den datierten Gemälden des Nicolaes Maes (1634–1693), Petersberg, 2000.

Rights Owner Copyright English Heritage
Author C.M. Kauffmann, revised by Susan Jenkins



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