Nicolaes Maes was the son of a prosperous merchant. He learned to draw from Houbraken, an artist who lived in his home town, Dordrecht. He moved toAmsterdam where he studied painting with Rembrandt between 1648/50 and then again in1653. By December 1653, the nineteen year old Maes returned to Dordrecht to begin an independent career as an artist. He continued to reside in Dordrecht until 1673, enjoying the patronage of Dordrecht’s political and mercantile élite.
For a brief period in the 1650s, Maes was considered one of the most innovative Dutch genre painters. His paintings of interior scenes or domestic life with women absorbed in household tasks,favoured by the Dutch, gave his work a certain gravity. He displayed great talent in the pictorial presentation of these works and in the expressive poses, and gestures of his figures. The atmosphere in these paintings is one of studious concentration. The influence of Rembrandt is seen in the brushwork, the colours, and in the play of light and shadow.
The Lacemaker, painted in 1655, is a typical example. Household work assumes the dignity claimed for it by the authors of didactic literature on family life at that time. Maes transformed these mundane tasks into events of solemn gravity. He restricted his palette to blacks, browns, whites and reds. He employed techniques ranging from a meticulous ‘fine painting’ style in the description of the wooden furniture to a grainy application of richly graduated tones in the execution of fabric and flesh.
Maes painted approximately 40 genre paintings and a few biblical pictures. He also had a productive career as a portrait painter. During the second half of the 1650s, when his output of genre pictures gradually diminished, his production of fashionable portraits steadily increased. From c. 1660 until the end of his career, Maes worked exclusively as a popular portraitist.
Maes’s exploration of three dimensional space in his later work exercised a strong influence on the Delft painters Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. In this way his work had a lasting legacy on the representation of interior space in seventeenth century Dutch painting.