Room 23 of the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid is the size of a child’s bedroom, warm and snug, and painted a soft rosy colour.
In the left-hand corner the teacher is seated on a small stool to one side of Nicolaes Maes’s El tamborilero desobediente (The Naughty Little Drum Player, circa 1655). The unobtrusive lighting of the room accentuates this particular painting. and also bathes the teacher in its warmth. Her loose V-neck sweater of fine beige wool lies softly over the slight roundness of an early pregnancy
Her long wavy brown hair and dark eyes have a Renaissance appeal. Only her metal-rimmed glasses put her in the 21st century and remind the occupants of the room that they are being carefully monitored and instructed. At her feet are seven immaculately dressed Spanish niños, five girls and two boys, who are paying strict attention to the lesson. Behind them, their parents — equally well-dressed in that subdued and formal style that urban Spaniards possess — are seated on a marble bench or standing. They too are minding their manners and listening intently to the teacher while at the same time watching their offspring with pride and some apprehension. This is a family affair: take your kids to the art museum day.
The lesson is a Socratic one in which information is gently but firmly elicited and given. The method is practised, natural, and replete with positive reinforcement in the form of lots of buenos, muy biens, ¿nada mas? and ¡eso es!, the latter delivered in a muted triumphal tone.
The questioning begins simply. The children are asked to tell the story, to participate in a collective narration of Maes’s theme. It is a view of a domestic interior, an average day in an ordinary household in 17th century Holland. The mother, a model of self-control in her prim costume and neatly coiffed hair, is reprimanding the first-born — son and sibling — for playing his drum while his baby sister sleeps soundly in a wicker cradle, as she, the mother, attends to her mending.
Boys will be boys
Judging by his well-tailored little boy’s suit, his fastidious shoes, his wavy locks, and a hat with just a touch of panache, this little boy in most respects is a model child, his naughtiness a slight anomaly, surely, in the delicacy of this domestic scene. He is a proper little gentleman, and yet still a child. His tears, and the drumstick thrown in a pique to the floor, are not rewarded, not acceded to, even though, all he wants to do is play his drum. It’s not fair!
The children looking on in Room 23 answer the teacher’s questions politely and correctly as they too are being asked to be on their very best behaviour. The girls especially understand why the little boy should not be playing his drum and why he must think of the needs of his sister.
Maria, who is asked to stand and read the description of the painting on the wall, does so with a self-assurance that announces that she is well-behaved and in control of her feelings. She will be a mother one day.
The two boys in the group of watchers answer the teacher’s questions when called upon but volunteer less than the girls. One of them seems a touch discomforted, seeming to sense that he may have done something that wasn’t quite proper, but is not sure just what.
And occasionally the teacher asks the parents a question, adult-style. They answer quietly and competently but one can’t help noticing that their already excellent deportment improves just a touch. Together, teacher, children, and parents help solve the pictorial problem that the artist presents.
Applying tenebrist techniques in which large dark areas in the painting contrast with sharply illuminated ones, Maes focusses our attention on the central theme of careful domesticity and reasonable moral virtue. Through a controlled and careful use of vibrant colour, the artist also balances the painting with parallel reds in the mother’s tunic and the table cloth.
A student of Rembrandt’s Amsterdam workshop, Maes began to specialize in depictions of domestic interiors, painting genre scenes that were a clear departure from classical images. His kitchen, nursery, and backyard scenes reflect ordinary life of the time and gently instruct his viewers, then and now. His deliberate inclusion of himself in The Naughty Little Drum-player — reflected in the mirror on the wall — continues the overall theme of watching and story-telling.
This anecdotal element and the domestic feel and simplicity of the painting capture the psychology of the subjects through the concentrated representation of domestic life. In this regard Maes exemplifies 17th century innovation, becoming less dependent on literary or classical sources and yet at the same time maintaining stylistic conventions and a certain set of composition formulae that do not startle or offend the viewer. The children can easily identify with his observations of everyday goings-on and at the same time are gently instructed by his art.
But the teacher in Room 23 of the Thyssen-Bornemisza is watching all of us, as we watch her. We take our cues from her in order to see clearly how the elements of the painting — the theme, the forms, the format, and the shapes — contribute to Maes’s lesson. The children seated on the floor answer her questions with deftness, candour, and politeness. These are well-brought up boys and girls, who know a moral tale when they see it. Only towards the end of the lesson, skillfully paced and balanced, do they begin to squirm ever so slightly. And having made her point, the teacher invites parents and children to move on.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
Over two generations the Thyssen-Bornemisza family of Holland, Germany, and Hungary amassed a superb collection of works of art, including outstanding pieces of Dutch art. The principal theme of the works, from the 17th to the 20th century, is one of realism.
When the collection outgrew its home in a villa in Lugano, Switzerland — and for tax and insurance reasons — it was discreetly put on the market. Major buyers, regal suitors, and politicians from eight countries courted the family hoping to acquire the collection. It was eventually awarded to Spain for $350 million and the exquisite Villahermosa Palace in Madrid was refurbished at a cost of $45 million to complement the collection. Today it is valued at between one and three billion dollars. In contrast to the grim Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza is a playground of light and humanism.
When visiting Madrid, it goes without saying that one should spend some quality time at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
Click on the link to go to the Thyssen-Bornemisza website.
A few other recommended art galleries-museums conducive to observing human behaviour and moments in time