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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Nicolaes Maes/An Old Woman Dozing over a Book/c. 1655,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed July 18, 2024).

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Thu Apr 24 00:00:00 EDT 2014 Version
Sun Jan 01 00:00:00 EST 1995 Version

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Nicolaes Maes, one of the foremost portrait painters of the second half of the seventeenth century, began his career as a painter of religious subjects and genre scenes. These early works reflect the influence of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), with whom he studied in Amsterdam between 1646 and 1653. In numerous paintings Maes explored the theme of a dozing woman who shirks her responsibilities. Here, the signs of sloth are subtle: the household keys, indicating worldly duties, dangle idly from a nail in the wall, and the opened Bible remains unread, suggesting that she has closed her eyes to the word of God.

Many of the props Maes used in this work reappear in other paintings from this period, as does his elderly model. Her identity is unknown, but she may have been a relative. Perhaps Maes followed Rembrandt’s example and used his mother for his representations of older women in his moralizing images of the mid-1650s. These didactic works were made after Maes returned to Dordrecht, where he married the widow of a preacher in 1654. Dordrecht was a Calvinist stronghold, so paintings that stressed moral responsibility probably had a ready market.


Seated at the table in a darkened room, an old woman leans her head on the back of her hand, dozing over her Bible. Her right hand, vaguely distinguishable in the shadow, rests on the book and holds her reading spectacles. Three large keys hang from a nail in the molding on the wall. The mood of the painting is somber and quiet. The light that falls on her face from the upper left also illuminates the keys, book, and red tablecloth, but most of her body and background are thrown into deep shadow.

Maes explored the theme of a sleeping woman a number of times in the mid-1650s, shortly after he left Rembrandt’s studio. Invariably these paintings have an admonitory character, for the woman is always shown dozing off instead of fulfilling her duties and responsibilities. In The Idle Servant of 1655 (National Gallery, London), Maes made his point by having a second woman gesture reprovingly toward the irresponsible servant.[1] Dirty pots and pans lie at the woman’s feet, and behind her a cat steals a chicken. As if the point needed reinforcement, Maes also placed the sleeping maid in a pose that was well known as a representation of Acedia (Sloth) [fig. 1]. He clearly intended to convey a comparable message in his representations of women dozing over their books, particularly when the book was the Bible.

The book in the National Gallery of Art painting can be identified as a Bible through comparison with a related painting in Brussels [fig. 2], in which this same Bible lies opened to the first page of the Book of Amos. Throughout most of this passage, God declares how he will no longer overlook the misdemeanors of the Israelites and that He intends to punish them the same as everyone else. Reinforcing the message that the woman’s behavior cannot be condoned is the fact that her lace work, a symbol of domestic virtue, also goes unattended.[2] Finally, the hourglass that props open the book and the extinguished candle in the niche are symbols of the transience of life. Since life is fleeting, the shirking of responsibilities signifies an unfulfilled existence in the eyes of both man and God.[3]

The message in the Washington painting is less explicit than in the examples from London and Brussels because the iconographic elements have been greatly reduced. Still, the underlying theme is clearly the same. The woman assumes the same pose of sloth; the only accessories, other than the Bible and her spectacles, are the keys hanging on the wall. Traditionally, keys suggest responsibility; left unattended, they indicate her failure to uphold her duties. Keys, however, have many metaphorical associations, among them, by association with the keys of Saint Peter, entry into heaven. Because a key also hangs on the back wall in the Brussels painting, in which themes of sloth and transience of life are both present, the keys here may likewise carry such dual symbolism. Falling asleep over one’s Bible is not a means for discovering the keys to heaven. Indeed, in another metaphorical sense of the work, the Bible provides us with keys for understanding life and guiding our salvation; as it lies unread, these keys are therefore neglected. Similarly, spectacles, which serve to improve vision and sharpen our awareness, are effective only when used properly. An old Dutch proverb reads: “What good is the candle or eyeglasses if the owl does not want to see.”[4] The devotion with which the woman in a Maes painting in the Worcester Art Museum prays [fig. 3], with her awareness of the transience of life evident in the skull and hourglass on the table before her, is a far more positive exemplar than that seen in either the Brussels or Washington paintings.[5]

Although An Old Woman Dozing over a Book is not dated, it must be from around 1655, when the influence of Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669) on Maes’ style was still strong. The broad touch, the dark palette with the deep reds of the tablecloth, and the strong chiaroscuro lighting are comparable to effects found in Rembrandt’s paintings from the mid-1640s.

The moralizing character that is so predominant in Maes’ genre paintings of the mid-1650s, however, has no direct prototype in Rembrandt’s paintings or in those of his other pupils and followers from the late 1640s and early 1650s, when Maes was in Amsterdam. Indeed, depictions by Rembrandt and his school of old women actively reading inevitably invoked the sitter’s pious nature.[6] Maes’ moralizing images were made after his return to Dordrecht and after his marriage to the widow of a preacher in January 1654. Dordrecht had a strong Calvinist tradition, and themes that stressed moral responsibility may have had a ready market.

Many of the props Maes used in this work reappear in other paintings from this period. So too does the model, who is in both the Brussels and the Worcester paintings,[7] and in the latter wears the identical striped headdress as here.[8] Although the identity of the model is not known, she was in all probability a relative. One wonders if Maes followed Rembrandt’s example and used his mother for his representations of old women in these strongly didactic works.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


upper right above keys: N. MAES



Antoine Delacoux de Marivault [1771-1846], Paris; (his sale, Salle Desmarets by Le Brun and Jaluzot, Paris, 9-10 June 1806, 1st day, no. 29, probably bought in);[1] (sale, by Pérignon and Chariot, Paris, 28-29 March 1816, 1st day, no. 49, bought in); deposited 1817 with (Frederic Quilliet, Paris);[2] (Quilliet sale, by Henry and Jaluzot, Paris, 15-17 April 1818, 1st day, no. 188). possibly (sale, Edward Foster, London, 7 June 1833, no. 69).[3] (Anonymous sale, Worcester, 1856); Thomas Grove Smith [d. 1879], Rashwood House, Droitwich, Worcestershire; by inheritance to his son, Herbert George Smith [d. 1918], Apsey House, Batheaston, Somerset;[4] (Arthur J. Sulley & Co., London); sold 25 September 1919 to (Thos. Agnew & Sons, Ltd., London); sold 15 January 1920 to (John Levy Galleries, New York).[5] Nils B. Hersloff, East Orange, New Jersey;[6] consigned April 1933-May 1934 and January 1935-April 1936 to (M. Knoedler & Co., New York);[7] purchased 16 April 1936 by The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Autumn Exhibition, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, 1900, no. 41.
Exhibition of Twenty Masterpieces (1400-1800) in Aid of King George V's Jubilee Trust, M. Knoedler & Co., London, 1935, no. 10.
Bilder vom alten Menschen in der niederländischen und deutschen Kunst 1550-1750, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, 1993-1994, no. 44, repro.

Technical Summary

The support, a medium-weight, plain-woven fabric, has been lined with the tacking margins trimmed. Cusping visible along all edges indicates the original dimensions have been retained. A smooth off-white ground application was followed by a dark imprimatura layer, applied overall and incorporated into the background.

Paint was applied thinly in all but the flesh tones with low impasto in light passages and transparent glazing in the darks. Wet-into-wet blending softens the edges of the controlled brushstrokes.

There is a long horizontal tear across the book and some abrasion along the proper left side of the sitter’s face and in the sitter’s proper right hand. In a restoration that occurred prior to acquisition, the sitter’s proper left hand and eye were heavily and awkwardly overpainted.[1] The painting was treated in 2000 to remove the overpaint and discolored varnish. The abrasion was also inpainted at that time.


[1] The paint in these areas was analyzed by the NGA Painting Conservation and Scientific Research departments using cross-sections and air-path X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy to determine that it was not original (see reports dated May 3, 2000, and August 15, 2000, in NGA Conservation department files).


Victoria Art Gallery. Autumn Exhibition. Exh. cat. Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, 1900: 9, no. 41.
Bode, Wilhelm von. Die Meister der holländischen und vlämischen Malerschulen. 2nd ed. Leipzig, 1919: 68.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Nicolaes Maes. Stuttgart, 1924: 72, no. 33, repro.
M. Knoedler & Co. Jubilee year exhibition of masterpieces through four centuries (1400-1800) in aid of King George's Jubilee Trust. Exh. cat. M. Knoedler & Co., London, 1935: 16: no. 10.
"Old Masters that Are on Show in London, Notable Pictures to See." The Illustrated London News (22 June 1935): repro.
Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 118, no. 63.
National Gallery of Art. Book of illustrations. 2nd ed. Washington, 1942: 63, repro. 28, 240.
National Gallery of Art. Paintings and Sculpture from the Mellon Collection. Washington, 1949 (reprinted 1953 and 1958): 89, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 314, 339, repro.
National Gallery of Art. Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1965: 80.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 71, repro.
Slive, Seymour. "Dutch School." In European paintings in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum. Edited by Louisa Dresser. 2 vols. Worcester, 1974: 1:112-114, ft. 3.
National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 208-209, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 286, no. 380, color repro.
Sumowski, Werner. Drawings of the Rembrandt School. 10 vols. Edited and translated by Walter L. Strauss. New York, 1979–1992: 8:4066, 4084.
Sumowski, Werner. Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler in vier Bänden. 6 vols. Landau, 1983: 3:2021, 2022, 2094, no. 1368, color repro.
Robinson, William W. "‘The sacrifice of Isaac’: an unpublished painting by Nicolaes Maes." The Burlington Magazine 136 (September 1984): 540 n. 6.
Sutton, Peter C. Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting. Edited by Jane Iandola Watkins. Exh. cat. Philadelphia Museum of Art; Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin; Royal Academy of Arts, London. Philadelphia, 1984: 241 n. 2.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 287, no. 374, color repro.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 240, repro.
Berger, Ursel, and Jutta Desel. Bilder vom alten Menschen in der niederländischen und deutschen Kunst, 1550-1750. Exh. cat. Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, 1993: 174-175, no. 44, repro.
Liedtke, Walter A. Rembrandt/not Rembrandt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: aspects of connoisseurship. Vol. 2, Paintings, drawings, and prints: art-historical perspectives. Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1995: 2:126-127, fig. 77.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 160-164, color repro. 161.
Krempel, León. Studien zu den datierten Gemälden des Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693). Studien zur internationalen Architektur- und Kunstgeschichte 9. Petersburg, 2000: no. 37, 361, fig. 27.

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