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Nicolaes Maes initiated his artistic studies in his native city and completed his training in Rembrandt’s studio where he worked from the late 1640s until 1653. From his early years as an independent master up to the 1660s he focused on interior scenes. After this he worked almost exclusively as a portraitist, in which he achieved renown due to his ability to capture the physical likeness of his sitters. Maes is also known for his early religious paintings, a genre in which he was influenced by Rembrandt.
Maes’ paintings of interiors take place in simple settings and focus on everyday activities. He depicted the habits, customs and tasks of servant girls and wealthy bourgeois women, using a language of gestures to emphasise the events taking place in the picture.
The provenance of this canvas can be traced back to the 19th century when it belonged to Anna Pavlovna, Grand Duchess of Russia, later Princess of Orange and wife of William II. The painting passed down the family by inheritance until it was sold prior to 1930, probably to the Berlin dealer Karl Haberstock, from whose gallery it was acquired by Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. Once in the Collection it was included in the exhibition held at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich in 1930 and appeared in the catalogues of the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection from that date.
In contrast to De Hooch or Vermeer, in his domestic scenes Maes included anecdotal details that enliven the scene. This is the case with The naughty Drummer, in which the mother is obliged to chastise her small son, even threatening him with a small rod, as his drumming is likely to wake the sleeping baby. The uniform light that enters through the windows on the left creates a pleasing atmosphere. The mother, seated by the window with her sewing on her lap, is a recurrent image in Dutch interiors. The present canvas is dated to Maes’ years in Dordrecht, following his departure from Amsterdam in late 1653. It includes elements characteristic of his style, such as the warm range of reds and orange tones in the woman’s clothes and the rug on the table, and the artist’s evident delight in depicting the textures of the different materials such as the wood and above all the wicker of the cradle and the basket. Also typical of Maes’ genre paintings are the gestures and poses used to convey the narrative of this small domestic incident, as well as the soft outlines of the figures, which help to create a tranquil mood.
The gesture of the woman admonishing her son has been interpreted as an allusion to the correct education of children which here leads the mother to contemplate drastic action. According to the contemporary moralist Jacob Cats, this was one of a mother’s tasks.
The canvas, which was in the collection of the Princes of Orange, was described by the Scotsman Sir John Murray when it was in the princely residence in The Hague in 1819. At that point it was known as The Artist’s Family as the image of a man reflected in a mirror on the wall behind the woman was thought to be Maes (on the basis of a self-portrait in Dordrecht). It was thus considered that the woman would be his wife, Adriana Brouwers, the little boy would be her son Justus from a previous marriage, and the baby in the cradle would be Johanna, her daughter with Maes. These interpretations are feasible in relation to the date and style of the painting. However, the canvas has also been interpreted in two other ways. In 1983 Durantini read it as a triple allegory of the contemplative life, represented in the self-portrait, the active life, in the admonitory gesture of the mother, and the sensual life, in the little drummer. Hedinger, however, read the image in political terms, relating it to the events taking place in Holland at the time. While these three hypotheses are quite different they are not mutually exclusive.