Family History Records Solve a Centuries-Old Art History Mystery

Family History Records Solve a Centuries-Old Art History Mystery

More than two centuries ago, a family portrait by the Dutch Master Frans Hals the Elder was mysteriously separated into three sections. This past fall, the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) was able to use historical records to solve the centuries-old mystery.

Frans Hals the Elder Paints the Van Campens

Frans Hals the Elder was particularly famous for his portraitures. He painted people in a very realistic way, but with a variety of poses and expressions — capturing a rare moment in the lives of his subjects.

On the occasion of their 20th wedding anniversary, Gijsbert Claesz Van Campen and his wife, Maria Jorisdr commissioned Frans Hals the Elder to paint the Van Campen family portrait in 1624. Gijsbert, a cloth merchant, also served as governor, assay-master, and dean of the Comansgilde (merchant’s guild). The couple lived in a large house on Kerckstraat, one of the oldest streets of Amsterdam. At his death, Gijsbert owned real estate worth 30,000 guilders, quite a fortune at the time.

Art History Mystery: Proposed reconstruction of the original Van Campen portrait painted by Frans Hal

Proposed reconstruction of the original Van Campen portrait painted by Frans Hals

The first of his family portraits, Hals painted the Van Campen family with a signature informal style which later became quite popular during the Dutch Golden Age. Hals was already in the prime of his career by the time he started the Van Campen portrait. He had just finished a portrait of 12 people from “The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia Company,” and received great critical acclaim. In this extraordinary family portrait, Gijsbert Claesz van Campen and his wife, Maria Jorisdr, are depicted in an informal, picnic-like setting with their children.

The Painting Gets Divided

Curators speculate why the painting was divided into several canvases. One theory maintains that the painting in its original form was extremely large and could only be accommodated in a very large home. Records indicate Cornelis, represented by the boy whose cheek is being touched by his mother’s left hand, would, in turn, inherit the painting and give it to his daughter Agnes. At some point after her death and before 1680, the painting had to be cut into separate canvases because its new home could no longer contain such a vast canvas.

Other curators thought the most likely explanation is that the original canvas suffered damage on the right and center areas, possibly from fire or water, and what could be salvaged is what remains.

Reuniting the Family Portrait

As early as 1929, a curator from Brussels conjectured that there might be more to the composition of Three Children with a Goat Cart. It was only once the conservation process was underway that his theory was confirmed.

Macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (Macro-XRF) scans all the chemical elements of the painting with a focused X-ray beam and then analyzes it through emitted fluorescence radiation. The method is highly valuable in the investigation of historical paintings, as elemental distribution images can reveal hidden subsurface layers, including modifications made by the artist or restorations on the surface.

When curators first took a look at Three Children with A Goat Cart under the Macro-XRF, they were able to detect through the layers of paint an inexplicable eyeball in the upper right corner of the canvas. There was also the partial figure of a girl at the right edge and sections of skirts on the left and right sides. These additional elements clued art historians into the possibility that there may be more to the picture than what they initially thought.

Art History Mystery: Three Children with a Goat-Cart (fragment), ca. 1623–25, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (click to zoom)

Three Children with a Goat Cart (fragment), circa 1623–25, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (click to zoom)

Then, in 2011, the Toledo Museum of Art acquired the Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape (circa 1623–25).

 Art History Mystery: Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape (circa 1623–25)  Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio (click to zoom)

Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape, circa 1623–25, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio (click to zoom)

Layered beneath the surface of the Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape, conservationists discovered what appeared to be half of a head. The head helped historians locate a third painting, Head of A Boy.

 Art History Mystery: Head of a Boy 1623–25. Private Collection (click to zoom)

Head of a Boy 1623–25, Private Collection (click to zoom)

Even without the deeper chemical evidence, the paintings themselves had always hinted at their secret past. The similarities in attire, the way certain folds of fabric connected the garments worn in each painting, and how certain individuals seem to gesture toward something outside the composition, led art historians to believe that there was a much deeper story behind these paintings.

Could it be that Three Children with A Goat Cart, held by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape held by the Toledo Museum of Art, and Head of a Boy held by a private collector, initially considered to be three separate canvases by Frans Hals, were actually three parts of the same puzzle?

Curators began entertaining an exciting new direction — perhaps these canvases were part of a single composition — one large family portrait of the Van Campen family painted in the early 1620’s.

The paintings themselves and the chemical analysis provided strong evidence, but there was only one way to confirm this theory. More information about the Van Campen family was needed, and historians needed to turn to historical records.

Historical Records Confirm the Hypothesis

Historical records of the Van Campen family tree were essential in confirming that the three paintings were fragments of a much larger family portrait. Through baptism records, civil marriage registries, and burial registries, Dutch art historian Pieter Biesboer was able to identify the family in the painting as Haarlem cloth merchant Gijsbert Claesz Van Campen, his wife, Maria Jorisdr, and their children.

Learn more about the life and times of your ancestors. Search MyHeritage’s historical record collections.

Historical record transcripts dating back circa 1430 confirmed that the family had 13 children by the time of their 20th wedding anniversary. The Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape shows the couple with just seven children. When you include the children from Three Children with a Goat Cart and Head of a Boy from both the visible surface and the hidden layers beneath the paint, 13 children are present. After Hals finished the work, a 14th child, a daughter, was born. The child at the bottom left of Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape was not original to Hals’ work, but was added later by the artist Salomon de Bray.

The availability of the Van Campen family records provided the final piece of evidence art historians needed to solve this marvelous mystery. Curators at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) collaborated with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (RMFAB) and a private collector to reunite the three pieces as well as to reimagine Fans Hals’ original masterpiece.

 Art History Mystery: Proposed reconstruction of the original Van Campen portrait painted by Frans Hal

Proposed reconstruction of the original Van Campen portrait painted by Frans Hal

Have historical records helped you solve a family mystery? Let us know in the comments below.

Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion is on display at the Toledo Museum of Art until January 6. Following Toledo, the exhibition will travel to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, February 2–April 28, 2019, and the Collection Frits Lugt in Paris, June 8–August 25, 2019.


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  • Jan

    March 15, 2019

    Why is the head of the child sitting on the lap of the woman in the lower right hand side of the picture identical to the head seen in the lower centre ? Very strange!

  • Britt

    March 15, 2019

    Jan, I was wondering the same. Maybe they are twins?

  • Rebecca Carey

    March 15, 2019

    Online in a privately managed regional database I found a transcribed marriage documentation (said marriage unspoken of by my mother’s family) that led me to confirm the existence and identity of the hush hush rumored ‘long lost cousin’, as well as glass plate photos of direct forebears, parentages, immigration info, news articles about exciting ‘omg’ sort of socially unacceptable escapades of the above cousin’s father, death dates for known relatives, etc, etc. This one single historical record opened the door to a huge trove of data on people already in my tree but devoid of detail, and on people I didn’t even know existed. The perspective this data gave me also allowed me to make sense of some of my maternal family’s more confusing attitudes and behaviors. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the brave folks who transcribe and digitize originals to the web!

  • Michelle Maani

    March 15, 2019

    Those babies are hideous. Adult heads on baby bodies. Same head repeated twice.

  • Ginger

    March 16, 2019

    Those are dolls. They look hideous, but that was the design of the times. Check out the flaming red face of the creepy doll on the lower left corner.

  • murice Amey

    March 16, 2019

    I love history

  • Sandra garlick

    March 18, 2019

    l would love to reconnect to my real relations due to geneology and find out the real people l don’t know who should be in my life l have always been quized by geneoulogy like my mum was

  • Christy

    April 3, 2019

    To answer the question about the duplication of the figures in the right-hand corner, that was done digitally by the historians to demonstrate what the complete painting could look like. They’re not saying Hals painted those two figures twice. That corner of the painting is what is missing.

  • Rita Chambers

    May 3, 2019

    I have Christmas post cards from the early 1900’s with 1 cent stamps but written in German. Also Dance invitations with songs on the back from the late 1920’s or 1930’s. EX: song — “Mamie”, “Hotsy Totsy” “Farmer Gray” and many more!

    • Esther

      May 8, 2019

      Fabulous relics!