Masterpiece Stories

Painting of the Week: Nicolas Maes, Young Woman Peeling Apples

Alexandra Kiely 21 July 2019 min Read

Today's Painting of the Week is Young Woman Peeling Apples by Nicolas Maes (1634-1693). Maes was a Dutch Golden Age painter who specialized in small-scale domestic scenes and portraits.

Young Woman Peeling Apples by Nicolaes Maes
Nicolaes Maes, Young Woman Peeling Apples, c. 1655. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913. [Public Domain].

Like many Dutch genre scenes, this painting features a woman engaged in household tasks. Here, the subject is a young maid absorbed in the act of peeling apples. The painting shows Maes's teacher Rembrandt's influence in its warm tone, soft modelling, and skillful use of shadows. The effect is homey and inviting. In his genre scenes, Maes's palette was often full of earth tones, though his portraits tended to be darker. He frequently used the color red as a connecting element. Here, he drew the whole scene together through the reds of the girl's sleeves, her headband, the apples, and the carpet covering the table.

Young Woman Peeling Apples appears to be a straightforward, if lovely, scene of a woman doing kitchen work. It doesn't seem innovative in any way, but it actually was. In 17th-century Dutch art, maids were more often shown like in the painting below, where the lady of the house finds her maid asleep on the job. Lazy and inept servants made frequent subjects for Dutch paintings. In general, comic and sexual scenes showing lower-class people behaving badly were popular among the wealthy in the Dutch Golden Age. Maes also painted some of these scenes, including the one below.

Interior with a Sleeping Maid by Nicolas Maes
Nicolas Maes, Interior with a Sleeping Maid (The Idle Servant), 1655. National Gallery, London. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

By contrast, the girl in Young Woman Peeling Apples is a model of diligence and restraint - qualities this society more typically attributed to higher-class women. As a viewer, you want to sit with her, not laugh at her. Turns out, this seemingly-uncomplicated little painting was actually rather progressive. However, Maes wasn't alone in painting maids without mocking. Vermeer's famous Milkmaid (Rijksmuseum) would come only a few years later.

Young Woman Peeling Apples is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It's currently on display as part of the Met's ongoing exhibition In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met.

Sources:
Liedtke, Walter. The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009. P. 27.
"Young Woman Peeling Apples, c. 1655". Metropolitan Museum of Art collection database.
Kiely, Alexandra. "The Joys of the Dutch Golden Age". A Scholarly Skater. July 11, 2019.

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