Nicolaes Maes studied with Rembrandt in Amsterdam during the late 1640s and early 1650s, and the broad, loose pen lines and rich, skillfully modulated washes of this drawing recall his teacher’s technique of that period. Many of Maes’s drawings relate to the innovative paintings of domestic life that he produced during the 1650s. Four small sketches on the verso of this sheet represent a figure raising an index finger to his or her lips. These studies are connected to Maes’s paintings of eavesdroppers, which date from 1655 to 1657, and the composition on the recto must belong to the same period.
A drawing in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, so closely matches the Harvard work in size, media, technique, and subject that the two studies must represent variant compositions for the same project (Fig. 1). If Maes executed these drawings in preparation for a painting, it was more likely a genre scene than a portrait. In 1656, he did paint a portrait of an unidentified man seated beside a desk in his study. Although the picture shares several details with the two drawings, the sitter is hatless and the arrangement of his arms and hands differs. His position—one hand resting on the arm of the chair and the other lying across his abdomen—is a conventional one in male portraits, including several done in the 1650s and 1660s by Maes.
In the Harvard and Hartford drawings, the figures prop their elbows on the desk and rest their heads on their hands. This pose occurs in Dutch portraits but is more common in genre paintings and prints that show men and women reading, thinking, or sleeping. For example, a panel dated 1648 by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout depicts an elderly savant, dressed in a fancifully historicizing costume, whose gesture and pensive gaze anticipate the poses of the figures in Maes’s drawings (Fig. 2). The head that appears upside down at the top center of the Harvard sheet might represent an alternate idea in which the man sports a beret instead of the broad-brimmed hat he wears in the main image. In genre paintings by Ferdinand Bol and a print by Henrick Rochuszn van Dagen (Fig. 3), scholars in their studies wear berets. The poem beneath the image in Van Dagen’s print celebrates the pleasures and value of the contemplative life, and Maes’s drawings presumably carry a similar meaning. A few genre paintings that represent a scholar in his study are attributed to Maes in old sale catalogues, but none can be traced today.