The Dutch painter Frans Hals’s Van Campen Family in a Landscape (ca. 1623–25) was his first family portrait, and his largest—until the painting was mysteriously sliced up and dispersed in the late eighteenth century.
The main and largest section made its way to the Toledo Museum of Art, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels purchased the second section, and the smallest part went to a private collection. The rest of the painting—about a fifth of the original canvas—is still unaccounted for. It may be destroyed. This year, the Toledo Museum of Art has brought these three pieces together for the first time since their separation in “Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion,” on view through January 6, 2019.
Hals overcame the challenge of presenting sixteen distinct personalities by allowing the Van Campens a natural pose: the ordered chaos of a large family. Now, even with the gaps lost to the knife, the surviving canvases—arranged in a simulation of the way they would have hung in the Van Campen home—reveal Hals’s mastery as a group portraitist.
Frans Hals makes his large-scale portraits appear instantaneous, almost like candid photos.
The main canvas depicts the Leiden cloth merchant Gijsbert Claesz van Campen, seated and looking directly out from the painting. His wife, Maria Jorisdr, tends to seven of their children. The younger children playfully tease one another, while an older daughter stands behind her parents, apparently absorbed in her own thoughts. As the scene sprawls over to the Brussels canvas, a smiling boy leads two of his younger sisters in a goat-drawn cart (incidentally, the goat cart’s first known appearance in seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture). Deep in the background, the spire of a Catholic church peeks out above the trees. The final canvas depicts a boy’s head and torso in what would have been the original painting’s upper right corner. The section below him once contained several more seated figures, but, as the painting currently hangs, there is only a blank wall.
Hals makes his large-scale portraits appear instantaneous—almost like candid photos—producing paintings so animated that one of his patrons, the Protestant theologian Theodorus Schrevelius, said that they “seem to breathe and live.” This portrait is no exception. As each family member interacts with the others naturalistically, Hals arranges them into a composition that gently undulates naturally across the canvas. Adding to the scene’s appearance of spontaneity, Hals employs a “wet on wet” technique, creating a liveliness in his faces that is often absent in the static group portraits of his Dutch contemporaries, such as Thomas de Keyser, Cornelius van der Voort, or Pieter Fransz de Grebber.
The discrepancies between Hals and his contemporaries become even more apparent when, in the Van Campen portrait, another painter’s work appears superimposed on his, as occurs in the lower-left corner of the Van Campen Family. The fourteenth child was born after Hals completed his commission, and the family hired the Dutch portraitist Salomon de Bray to add her in 1628. Unlike the rest of her family, the new youngest child is painted in a rigid pose, with precise brushstrokes and shining skin tones that clash with the Hals figures above. And since this is the only child who does not interact with the others, de Bray breaks the family’s interiority; she looks like an awkward addition to an otherwise unified scene.
But perhaps this awkwardness is fitting, because it presents a temporal oddity: the child in the left corner and the one riding in the goat cart are simultaneously depicted as the youngest, since they both wear the red coral beads traditionally reserved for that position in the family. It was this, along with other imbalances, that prompted art historians as early as 1929 to suspect that the Toledo and Brussels pieces belonged together. The separate canvases don’t make sense alone: family members make aimless gestures at nothing, and their clothing runs off the edge at unconventional points. But together, their groupings form an almost-cohesive whole.
It wasn’t until 2013, however, that a restoration project on the Brussels section brought these portions of the painting back together. As they cleaned the canvas, restorers found part of a girl’s head on the upper right, and cloth running off into an unseen figure on the lower right. These inconsistencies proved that the Brussels section was part of a larger composition, and when hung alongside the other two sections (as it appears now in Toledo) the three fragments can be clearly seen as one family.
The theme of family looms large throughout the whole exhibition—not just in canvas size. The exhibition also features several other Hals family groups in landscapes and two pendant pieces most likely painted on the occasion of a marriage: Seated Man Holding a Hat and Seated Woman Holding a Fan (both 1648–50).
The highlight among these other family portraits is the Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen (ca. 1622), Hals’s only known marriage portrait depicting a husband and wife together. The painting is unique because it portrays the couple, who were friends of Hals, in a relaxed pose against a tree, while still conveying the multifaceted symbolism common to Dutch portraits of the time. The vine curling around the tree upon which the couple leans represents the two’s intertwining love. The thistle on the ground is a common marker of male fidelity to protecting his wife, while the ivy on rock signals the way a woman clings to her husband in the marital bond. The statue of Juno in the background is a classical allusion to the goddess’s protection of marriage. The peacocks wandering the garden serve a double role as Juno’s birds of marriage and as Christian symbols of the resurrection that comes from self-sacrifice. Finally, the pots on the ground are a subtle memento mori—a reminder of life’s fragility.
The companion pieces are more typical of marriage portraits. Individual portraits of both the husband and wife, they were meant to be displayed side by side in the couple’s home. Throughout his career, Hals painted more than thirty pairs of these pendants to celebrate weddings. Here once again, symbols within the paintings show purpose. The ring on the woman’s finger indicates her married status, and her black tipmuts—the snug cap on her head—is a sign of her modesty. The young man is also dressed in black in accordance with the custom and fashion of the day.
Even within the niche genre of family portraiture, the exhibition shows Hals’s range as an artist. He brings life to large groups, intimate pairings, and single portraits, all with a studied air of effortlessness.