The Juicy, Joyous Work of Frans Hals

Left: The Van Campen Family in a Landscape (fragment), c. 1623–25, Frans Hals. Oil on canvas. (Toledo Museum of Art)

Right: Portrait of a Dutch Family, mid-1630s, Frans Hals. Oil on canvas. (Cincinnati Art Museum)

In his vivid 17th-century portraits, family members loll, laugh, and have a great time together.    

The Toledo Museum of Art is one of the nation’s best galleries. It has a superlative collection and does intelligent, topical shows. I saw its newest show, Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion, not in Toledo, where I missed it, but in Brussels. This lovely, jewel-like show is now at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, which collaborated with Toledo in organizing it.

I see many shows and have watched standards and priorities evolve. I won’t make judgments on the field of art history overall except to say that methodologies driven by Marxism, gender studies, white privilege, Orientalism, and the hodgepodge of approaches I’ll call critical theory have dimmed but not extinguished the twin beacons of quality and connoisseurship. These together always lead us to the best art history. Close looking and archival research still exist, and it’s thrilling to me to see them deployed in a serious, fruitful way, as did Toledo and Brussels in the Hals show.

The show starts with paintings from the permanent collections of each museum, each presenting a mystery and a puzzle they solve in tandem. In 2011, Toledo bought a rare, important group portrait by Hals (1582–1666). Now called The Van Campen Family in a Landscape, it’s an unusual painting for many reasons. Hals revolutionized the group portrait, changing a genre from so many stiffs in a row looking directly at the viewer to a gesturing, animated, engaged gathering of people united by a common interest, often a civic group, and having a good time. Yes, they’re posing, but they’re far from stuffed heads on the wall. He conveyed snapshot immediacy as no one had done in a picture that wasn’t religious.

Hals did fewer than a dozen official group portraits of members of militias or trustees of charities. Almost all of them are in Haarlem in the Netherlands, at the Frans Hals Museum, a must-stop for any discerning art lover. He did only four family groups, all together in the show for the first time. Family groups were rare in part because they were expensive but also because official group portraits of, say, militias, could find a spot in big, institutional spaces like town halls. Dutch homes were small, so a painting with lots of figures was unlikely to fit.

The Toledo picture is now and was always a showpiece and a luxury product. The family is clearly prosperous. It’s established enough to show itself with a measure of informality. They’re in their Sunday best, but no drudge seems to police against creased taffeta. For years, no one knew for certain who the family was, and this isn’t uncommon. Dutch archives are good but not complete. After a picture leaves the original sitter’s family, identities often disappear.

Starting in the 1920s and off and on into the 1980s, Hals scholars noted the stylistic similarities between the Toledo picture and a painting in Brussels called “Three Children with a Goat Cart,” owned by the Royal Museums. Scholars agreed it also was by Hals, also from the early 1620s, and starting in the 1970s some proposed it might have once been part of the group portrait owned after 2011 by the museum in Toledo.

Do paintings get cut into pieces? Of course! For many years, and for lots of people, a painting was like a piece of furniture or a wedding dress. The world wasn’t thick with art historians or auction houses, Hals wasn’t that famous, information was imperfect, space didn’t get less tight, the market marched forward, and we like having a pair of scissors handy.

Museum time is like biblical time, or geological time. From the time of early conjectures on these two pictures, weeks and months floated by and turned into years, then many, many years. Urgency isn’t the currency of museum life. Curators don’t work in emergency rooms. The Toledo picture was in private hands, and scholars were working through photographs and guesses. People traveled less.

Left: Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart (fragment), c. 1623–25, Frans Hals. Oil on canvas. (©Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels)

Right: Portrait of a Boy of the Van Campen Family, c. 1623-25, Frans Hals. Oil on canvas. (Private Collection)

Finally, bolts of serendipity occurred. Toledo, a museum with experienced curators, bought its painting. A Dutch scholar in 2013 firmly identified the family Hals depicted. It shows a Haarlem cloth merchant, Gijsbert Claesz van Campen (1585–1645), his wife, Maria (1582–1666), and seven of their children. The show neatly and clearly tells the ensuing detective story. Part of it is science, and the technology of dating paint surfaces and looking under surfaces is better than ever. In 2016, the Toledo and Brussels pictures were compared and studied side by side in Brussels.

Amid the excitement and speculation, and aided by a better flow of information occasioned by the Internet, yet a third fragment, showing a young boy, was discovered. Testing and connoisseurship established that these two bigger groups and the fragment of the boy were once part of an immense, splendid family portrait with the van Campen pater and mater, 13 children, and a goat. The picture probably stayed intact until the last van Campen sold it. Once it was out of the family, new owners felt freer to make it fit. Possibly dealers adjusted size for the marketplace. Conservators and art historians, looking at the three pieces and Hals’s other group portraits, have proposed a reconstruction worthy of CinemaScope. Hals’s groups all have a spatial rhythm and balance. Their suppositions now are not outrageous.

Proposed reconstruction of The Van Campen Family in a Landscape, c. 1623–25, by Frans Hals. Oil on canvas. (Toledo Museum of Art)

There are other twists and turns, carefully and clearly reported to tell a good story. Informed conjecture raises the prospect of another pair of figures out there somewhere showing two females, one a teenager and one a baby, that might have posed beneath the boy in the single-figure fragment. Adding more riches to the show are three other Hals-family group portraits from other museums painted in the 1630s and 1640s. Hals’s style evolves in all of his portraits through the end of his career. The other three differ from the van Campen portrait in many other respects. They’re smaller and less complex but just as satisfying.

I love Hals for his brio. He takes what were likely dour, hard-working Dutch businessmen and their dowdy wives and invests them with joy, warmth, even a touch of abandon. They’re mobile, breathing, and agile. They’re sometimes forbidding, but usually they’re huggers and kissers, and looking at them makes me think of good food and music. I’m always drawn to what I call “zafdig,” or juicy painting, in part because I learned about art at a museum with plenty of Renoirs and Sargents.

Hals is a zafdig painter and distinguished himself from many other Dutch artists in his style and in his preference for portraits. When the Nazis started bombing London in 1939, George VI wanted his bomb shelter decorated with paintings of cows at pasture by Aelbert Cuyp, also Dutch and Hals’s contemporary. If I were George VI, Cuyp, like plenty of Dutch art, would have bored me into stupefaction, if not outright submission to the Germans. Hals makes for joy. His work is a metaphor for life and promise.

Left: Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, c. 1622, by Frans Hals. Oil on canvas. (©Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Right: Family Group in a Landscape, c. 1645–48, Frans Hals. Oil on canvas. (©Museo Thyssen- Bornemisza, Madrid)

It’s a great show, focused, succinct, with gorgeous, important art, an international collaboration, and propelled by the permanent collection of two fine museums. The curators are good scholars and good teachers, which are two sides of the same coin. An astute researcher is useless unless he or she can communicate.

The very recent news from Toledo is the departure of Brian Kennedy, its director, to lead the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The Peabody Essex is another superb museum soon to be a national powerhouse. In September, it will open a vastly expanded campus in the old whaling town and port, also notorious for its 1692 witchcraft trials. Salem, like Toledo, once had tremendous wealth, which allowed both cities to build a cultural legacy for future generations.

Toledo today might not be Paris, but it’s a nice, friendly city. Salem was long ago eclipsed by Boston, but in recent decades, its museum has attracted great and deserved attention. Many Boston donors tired of the Museum of Fine Arts’ politics and found in the Peabody Essex a fine place not far away, with fewer complications, a great collection, especially in maritime and Asian art, and a good staff. Like Toledo, which has been exceptionally well managed, the Peabody Essex is financially stable. Kennedy takes the helm there soon and will do great things. We can only pray that his to-be-chosen successor in Toledo doesn’t inflict happy-clappy museum fads on one of the Midwest’s cultural glories.



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