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The woman is tip-toeing down the stairs, her forefinger raised to her lips to indicate silence, while she listens to a lovers’ tryst in the room beyond. Identified as the mistress of the house by the weighty keys hanging from her waist, the woman descends the stairs from a small book-lined office, where she has presumably been seeing to the house hold accounts. In contrast, the young maidservant at right is distracted from her childminding duties by her lover’s ardent caress. With her gentle smile and direct outward gaze, the eavesdropper draws the viewer into the narrative and presents a moral choice between industry and idleness, between domestic virtue and sensual abandon. The use of light comedy to stress a moral lesson is common in the artist’s genre paintings, though never so ribald as in works by Jan Steen.

English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House





oil on canvas


H 57.5 x W 66 cm

Accession number


Acquisition method

management transferred from the Victoria and Albert Museum to English Heritage, 2004

Work type



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Normally on display at

English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House

149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner, London, Greater London W1J 7NT England

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