Nicolaes Maes painted this enigmatic and evocative image of a young woman caring for two girls and an infant boy seated on a goat at the very beginning of his career. Whether Maes conceived this work as a group portrait, a portrait historié, or based his scene on a literary source has been debated over the years. The traditional title of this painting, dating back to the early nineteenth century, is Spanish Gypsy,1 a title based on the assumption that Maes was inspired by Jacob Cats’s Het Spaens heydinnetje. Cats published his story in Trou-ringh (Dordrecht, 1637), and his narrative was later turned into a play by Mattheus Tengnagel (Amsterdam, 1643).2 In his story, Cats describes how a two-year-old noble girl is kidnapped by an old gypsy woman for her expensive clothing and jewelry and is forced to grow up as a singing gypsy. At age 15, while surrounded by fellow gypsy girls making rose wreaths, a nobleman falls in love with her and rescues her. Although several elements of this story—a gypsy woman, a baby, and girls with roses—are present in the painting, other compositional elements—the gender of the baby, the young age of the woman, and the goat—do not correspond with the story’s plot, and it is unlikely that this traditional title accounts for the unusual character of this painting. Moreover, the puffs around the woman’s broad, relatively flat hat are not found in costumes worn by gypsies, and she does not wear a chord around her neck, as gypsies normally do.3
It is probable that the painting is an allegorical family portrait.4 Although the woman’s hat is somewhat fanciful, and akin to those seen in history paintings from the Rembrandt school,5 her simple red dress, plain white chemise and brown apron indicate that she is most likely a wet nurse or maid.6 Maes emphasized the interaction between the maid and the boy through their compositional prominence and their contrasting yellow and bright red clothing. With a slight tilt of her head, she tenderly leans over the baby boy in her care, his gender indicated by the red coral necklaces draped over his shoulder. She helps him to sit upright on the back of a goat by supporting his back with her left hand and holding onto the animal’s backside with the other. This motif relates to a tradition in seventeenth-century children’s portraiture where young boys are shown astride bridled goats, symbolic of the need to curb lust and to ensure a good upbringing.7 Here, the maid takes on a guiding role in the rearing and education of the future patriarch of this family. The boy, elegantly clad in a yellow dress, embroidered shoes, and a feathered beret over a tight hat—a so-called biggin—has a sweet and docile expression, as though aware that he is under her protection. His coral necklaces, moreover, were thought to provide protection against illness.8
In the foreground sits the boy’s older sister, who wears an expensive gold-embroidered chemise under a brown dress. She carries a tubular case for crochet needles on a chain at her waist, a tambourine in her lap, and roses in her hands.9 Another sister, wearing a brown dress and a red necklace, is seen in profile at the far right against the backdrop of a rose bush. The two girls, painted in brown and dark red hues and wearing almost identical dresses, gaze to the right, outside the picture plane. Perhaps they once looked toward a pendant painting depicting their parents.10
When the painting first appeared on the market in 1796, it was attributed to Rembrandt on the basis of a false Rembrandt signature.11 This attribution persisted until Alfred von Wurzbach gave it to Nicolaes Maes in 1910.12 Most subsequent scholars, such as Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, Wilhelm von Bode, Wilhelm Valentiner, Werner Sumowski, and Leon Krempel, accepted this attribution and generally dated the painting to ca. 1653, the year in which Maes left Rembrandt’s studio and settled in Dordrecht as an independent master.13 They connected the painting to several works from Maes’s oeuvre from the early 1650s, particularly his Abraham Dismissing Hagar and Ishmael, 1653, his earliest dated painting (fig 1), in which Hagar’s features are similar to those of the maid. They also stressed the relationship of the Leiden Collection painting to Christ Blessing the Children, which Maes probably painted in the same year (fig 2).14 Sumowski also related the Leiden Collection painting to a drawing he attributed to Maes depicting Hagar and the Angel near the Well en Route to Sur from ca. 1652–1653 because of the similarity of the figure of Hagar in the drawing to that of the maid in the painting.15
William Robinson, however, questioned the attribution to Maes in his 1996 dissertation on the early works of Nicolaes Maes, in which he placed the painting within the School of Rembrandt without an attribution to a given artist. He still maintains that the “differences [between the present painting and the two early paintings by Maes mentioned above] are more compelling than the similarities.”16 It is true that, upon closer inspection, the modeling of the hands in the London painting is more complex and the interplay of light and shadow on the faces in the background of the London painting is more subtle and has a crisp, theatrical effect compared to the present painting. There are also differences in execution with Abraham Dismissing Hagar and Ishmael. The maid’s white chemise and the white goat are modeled more broadly and with more Rembrandtesque impasto than the more smoothly rendered chemise that Hagar wears in the Metropolitan Museum of Art painting.
Nevertheless, the similarities between the Leiden Collection painting and Maes’s other early works, especially Christ Blessing the Children with its similar subdued palette and monumentality of figures, are significant. The atmospheric lighting in the Leiden Collection painting is striking and seems to foreshadow Maes’s more sophisticated use of light and shade in Christ Blessing the Children. It thus seems likely that the Leiden Collection painting is one of the earliest paintings by Maes, executed in Rembrandt’s workshop between 1649 and 1653, and before he painted Abraham Dismissing Hagar and Ishmael and Christ Blessing the Children.17
The provenance of Woman with Three Children and a Goat can be traced back to the eighteenth century. Its first recorded owner was Wouter Valckenier (1705–84), descendant of an influential Amsterdam patrician family, whose ancestors Pieter Ranst Valckenier (1661–1704) and Eva Suzanna Pellicorne (1670–1732) are featured in Michiel van Musscher’s pendant portraits, also in the Leiden Collection (MM-102a/b).18 By 1813 the work was in the possession of Josephus Augustinus Brentano (1753–1821), an Amsterdam-based Italian merchant and art collector. Brentano attached great significance to Maes’s painting, as can be seen in Adriaan de Lelie’s 1813 portrait of him with his art collection, in which the work can be seen hanging prominently on the wall behind him (fig 3). In the two subsequent centuries, the painting was owned by a string of impressive collectors, including Baron James Mayer de Rothschild (1792–1868) and various other members of the Rothschild family, the distinguished New York banker and art collector J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), and the Dutch entrepreneur and collector Anton C. R. Dreesmann (1923–2000).19