This is one of my all time favorite portraits. I felt that, in honor of Labor Day here in the US, it might be nice to take a second look at this wonderful piece. I worked as a bookkeeper for many years and loved the work.
As a retired bookkeeper, I was pleased to come across a painting portraying a woman working at that craft in the seventeenth century. The Account Keeper was painted in 1656, when Nicolaes Maes was at the peak of his craft.
What I particularly like about this picture is the subject: a woman, middle-aged, and competent. Modestly dressed, she is seated at an ornate desk and is working in a place of commerce, as is shown by the map on the wall behind her. On the wall to the right of her, a clipboard hangs, with the artist’s signature on it. Maes liked to place his signature in unexpected places in his paintings, making it an unobtrusive part of the scene.
This is a well-executed painting, and the balance is significant. The accountant is small, placed to the left of center, while the world map over her is large. A ring with several large keys hangs on a nail beside her, the keys to the safe, cash boxes, and her file drawers.
The placement of the map and the inclusion of the keys is important. The company whose accounts she so meticulously keeps is seen to have transoceanic connections, and wealth worth keeping under lock and key. These clues show us the company she works for is rich, and her dress shows she has a good, if modest, income from them for her labors.
The way she is shown in this painting is, I suspect, how she sees herself. She is dedicated, quietly keeping the numbers straight, thereby ensuring the company’s financial success.
It’s unusual to see a woman in this time period depicted as being engaged in any tasks other than those of a wife/mother, farm laborer, domestic servant, or prostitute. Education for women was limited, but employment and business opportunities for women did exist. However, other than posing for family portraits, these women are rarely shown at work even by the more socially conscious genre artists.
Nicolaes Maes was unusual in that he painted women at work in all stages of their lives.
About the Artist:
From Wikipedia: Nicolaes Maes, also known as Nicolaes Maas (January 1634 – November 24, 1693 (buried)) was a Dutch Golden Age painter of genre and portraits. In about 1648 he went to Amsterdam, where he entered Rembrandt‘s studio. Before his return to Dordrecht in 1653 Maes painted a few Rembrandtesque genre pictures, with life-size figures and in a deep glowing scheme of colour, like the Reverie at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Card Players at the National Gallery, and the Children with a Goat Carriage. So closely did his early style resemble that of Rembrandt, that the last-named picture, and other canvases in the Leipzig and Budapest galleries and in the collection of Lord Radnor, were or are still ascribed to Rembrandt.
In his best period, from 1655 to 1665, Maes devoted himself to domestic genre on a smaller scale, retaining to a great extent the magic of colour he had learnt from Rembrandt. Only on rare occasions did he treat scriptural subjects, as in Hagar’s Departure, which has been ascribed to Rembrandt. His favorite subjects were women spinning, or reading the Bible, or preparing a meal. He had a particular fascination with the subject of lacemaking and made almost a dozen versions on this subject.
While he continued to reside in Dordrecht until 1673, when he settled in Amsterdam, he visited or even lived in Antwerp between 1665 and 1667. His Antwerp period coincides with a complete change in style and subject. He devoted himself almost exclusively to portraiture, and abandoned the intimacy and glowing color harmonies of his earlier work for a careless elegance which suggests the influence of Van Dyck. So great indeed was the change, that it gave rise to the theory of the existence of another Maes, of Brussels. His registered pupils were Justus de Gelder, Margaretha van Godewijk, Jacob Moelaert, and Johannes Vollevens. Maes died in Amsterdam.
Credits and Attributions:
Nicolaes Maes, The Account Keeper, ca. 1656, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wikipedia contributors, “Nicolaes Maes,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nicolaes_Maes&oldid=815679835 (accessed July 12, 2018).