Family reunions can be touching or tense, joyous or fractious. But they are almost always complicated.
But the Toledo Museum of Art has managed to get most of them back in the same room in the recently opened exhibition “Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion,” on view through Jan. 6.
The Van Campens sat for a portrait by Hals (circa 1582-1666), one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age, almost 400 years ago. It was his first family portrait, possibly commissioned for the 20th wedding anniversary of the Haarlem cloth merchant and his wife.
But the canvas was split into pieces toward the end of the 18th century, for unknown reasons. (Fun fact: It was not unheard-of, then, to cut up paintings.)
Two large pieces and one small part of the painting are now reunited for the first time in Ohio, alongside the four other known family group pictures the artist did, and two single portraits intended as a pair for good measure.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Ann Demeester, director of the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands. “There has been a lot of mystery surrounding this picture.”
The exhibition’s organizer, Lawrence W. Nichols, said the seeds of the show were sown early in the Toledo museum’s history.
“We were founded in 1901 by a glass manufacturer, who, at his death, left us what he thought was a Hals,” said Nichols, a senior curator at the museum. “But his Hals was not a Hals, and we deaccessioned it after proper review. So we’ve been hunting for one for a while.”
In summer 2010, Nichols was in London, and during a visit to an art dealer he came upon “The Van Campen Family in a Landscape” (1623-25), depicting nine of the family members (including a baby with a strange grimace in the lower left-hand corner that was added later by another painter). He put it on reserve and eventually acquired it for the museum.
“But we knew it was a fragment,” Nichols said. “And that’s the raison d'être for this exhibition.”
He added, “Since Hals is one of the great portraitists in the Western tradition, it’s been very exciting.”
Now it is reunited with “Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart,” from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, featuring four children total, and “Head of a Boy,” from a private collection. (The show will be at the Brussels museum Feb. 2-April 28.)
The total number of fragments is unclear, but at least one other piece is thought to be still missing, partly because the family is believed to have had 14 children.
Demeester called the work “a jigsaw puzzle that has been put back together as a collage.”
Indeed, the essays in the exhibition catalog reveal that a huge amount of scholarly brain power has been spent figuring out the mystery over the decades.
Perhaps it would be a mere curiosity if it were another painter’s puzzle. But Hals — though he may play third fiddle among Dutch Golden Age painters, after Rembrandt and Vermeer — has an enduring hold on art lovers.
Born in Antwerp, then part of the Spanish Netherlands, Hals moved north to Haarlem to escape Spanish rule and quickly set about a long career as a painter, living to 84.
He eventually sired 11 children with two wives (the first died in childbirth), so he knew a little something about the large family dynamics on view in the Van Campen portrait. That comes through in the picture.
“Hals still looks so modern to us now,” said Adam Eaker, an assistant curator of European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who classified him as one of the all-time best of the “painterly painters,” alongside later lights like Velázquez and John Singer Sargent, also known for their loose, brio-filled brush strokes.
“He was also a huge source of inspiration for the impressionists,” Eaker said.
Three Hals pictures are on view now in an exhibition he organized, “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met,” a selection of 67 works from the permanent collection that will be on view for two years.
They include “Young Man and Woman in an Inn (‘Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart’)” (1623), done around the same time as the portrait of the Van Campens.
Nichols said that Hals was probably best known for his individual portraits and his group portraits of soldiers.
“What makes this show special is the family dynamic,” he said.
The exhibition includes “Family Group in a Landscape” (1645-48), from the collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, and “Portrait of a Dutch Family,” (1630s), from the Cincinnati Art Museum.
And although cutting up large paintings by great artists seems cringe-worthy to us now, the resulting pieces have a lesson for us, Demeester said.
“They were perfectly functional separately,” she said. “It’s a testament to his ability to capture people, and his compositional skills. Even when you cut it up, it can survive.”
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