“Young Woman Peeling Apples” by Nicolaes Maes, ca. 1655, Dutch. On view in Gallery 964 at time of writing.

Girls of the Met is a column that looks at how the Metropolitan Museum of Art is representing girls in their collections, using items that are publicly on view, and how we can reinterpret them to be more inclusive and activist in how we think about art, history, and culture. I’d love to know what you think of these reinterpretations!

In gallery 964 at the Met’s Fifth Avenue gallery, a “young woman” peels apples. As the Met explains in their object label: 

Bright red tones unify this painting, linking the maid’s costume, the apples she peels, and the Turkish carpet on the table. Painted a few years after Maes left Rembrandt’s studio, this picture reveals the artist’s debt to his teacher in its soft contours and effects of light. Previous painters had made housemaids the subject of comic or sexually suggestive scenes. With this sensitive and ennobling depiction, Maes made an important innovation.

Link to object record: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436934 

Okay…what? This description goes from color tones to classifying her as a maid to saying Maes was innovative in this “sensitive and ennobling” depiction. First off, pick something to talk about. This label is all over the place, trying to be all things to all audiences rather than engaging with any one aspect of importance. I’m left feeling like I know nothing about this painting; it’s just another in a long series of girls painted doing things.

So let’s dive in.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693) was Dutch painter who studied under Rembrandt, hence the similarity in artistic styles and colors. Maes was born well off – the son of a wealthy merchant (so middle class), so he had no problem devoting his life to art instead of business. In 1653, Maes married; the couple had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood. Painted in 1655, this painting is definitely not one of Maes’s children – so it is either his wife, a maid in the household, or a model. That’s not very definitive, but at least we can say with some certainty that Maes knew the woman.

Given her body, she is a young woman. She has more girlish features and a lack of breasts. Though this isn’t definitive, it definitely suggests youth. Her outfit is similar to other paintings featuring Dutch maids or servants. Compared to fashions found among the middle and upper classes, the outfit is rather plain – meant for work. However, we can’t discount that this may simply be what a woman of the house wore during workdays. In 1655, Maes is 21 years old and recently married. Despite his father’s wealth, Maes probably doesn’t have much wealth of his own yet; it would be another few years before he becomes an accomplished painter. In fact, another of his paintings – “Two Chattering Housewives” (also painted in 1655) – suggests that wives could dress in plain garb while working. Interestingly, the primary figure in “Two Chattering Housewives” looks incredibly like the girl in “Young Woman Peeling Applies.”

Is this Maes’s wife, Adriana Brouwers?

It’s an intriguing possibility. 

We also find evidence of Maes’s innovation in a description by Sphinx Fine Art:

“For a brief period in the mid-1650s Maes ranked among the most innovative Dutch genre painters, owing to his talent for pictorial invention and for devising expressive poses, gestures and physiognomies. He adapted Rembrandt’s brushwork and chiaroscuro to the scenes of domestic life that provided the favourite subject-matter for genre artists working in the third quarter of the century. The poetic deployment of light and shade and the adeptly designed figures invest his paintings of interior scenes with women absorbed in household tasks with an atmosphere of studious concentration. In pictures of spinners, lacemakers (e.g. The Lacemaker, 1655; Ottawa, National Gallery) and mothers with children, dating from 1654 to 1658, household work assumes the dignity and probity claimed for it by contemporary authors of didactic literature on family life. Maes also executed a small group of works that show everyday events taking place on the doorstep of a private house. Some depict milkmaids ringing the doorbell or receiving payment for a pot of milk (e.g. London, Apsley House); others represent boys asking for alms from the residents. As in the interior scenes, Maes’s pictorial gifts transformed these mundane transactions into events of solemn dignity.”

This means that Maes is inspired by the scenes around him, likely his new wife and the daily running of the household and neighboring homes. This lends both further evidence that Maes’s wife may be depicted in the paintings, and also that Maes found fascination in the world around him as he began his artistic career. Though Maes later shifted his focus to portraiture, the paintings produced in the mid-1650s provide glimpses of everyday Dutch life with intriguing possibilities.

So if we were to rewrite the Met’s label, it might go something like this:

Nicolaus Maes began his artistic career painting scenes of everyday life. Using techniques learned from his mentor, Maes used light, shading, color, and natural poses to infuse everyday life with a dignity and probity not yet seen in Dutch art. Many scenes depict young women engaged in household tasks. This young woman looks very much like other women he painted in domestic scenes, suggesting she is someone in his household. Married just two years prior, this could be Maes’s wife – Adriana Bouwers – or one of the maids in their employ. 

What do you think? What kind of discussions does the new label prompt that the old one left out? 

-Tiffany Isselhardt
Program Developer
Girl Museum Inc.

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