A family portrait brimming with life — and children

Even in this fragment of Frans Hals’s painting of the Van Campens, it is clear the artist was ahead of his time

This family portrait by the great 17th-century Dutch painter Frans Hals (1582/1583–1666) all but cries out for a 21st-century caption. “Another convention in Amsterdam?” you can imagine the woman thinking. “And you leave tomorrow?” Or more simply: “You want an eighth, did you say? Are you kidding me?”

Just my idle, anachronistic projection, of course, but the woman’s mordant expression does make it tempting.

Hals, who lived in Haarlem, was an astonishingly good painter. He specialized in portraits that captured fleeting expressions — especially laughter. His brisk, loosely brushed manner was so far ahead of its time that only in the 19th century did such Impressionists as Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot catch up with him.

This huge painting (more than 25 square feet) at the Toledo Museum of Art is one of only four family portraits Hals is known to have painted. All four set their subjects within a landscape, an innovation that allowed, or stimulated, a more informal approach. You see that here in the spontaneous-seeming interactions among the individuals and in the painting’s slight air of anarchy — so much truer to family life than what’s conventionally served up in stiffly posed family portraits set in fancy drawings rooms.

Large as “Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape” is, it was once even larger but was divided into at least three parts for unknown reasons, most likely sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century. The other parts — two, anyway — have survived. Art historians obtained definitive proof that they belonged together in 2016, five years after the Toledo museum purchased this work. One fragment, of three more children and a goat, is in Brussels. Another, depicting a smiling boy, is in a private collection.

That makes a total of 11 children. But, in fact, the Van Campens had three more, and scholars have since uncovered evidence that all 14 — six boys and eight girls — were shown in the painting before it was cut up.

One late addition to the family — the apple-cheeked toddler at bottom left — was painted in by another Haarlem painter, Salomon de Bray, in 1628. De Bray didn’t try to conceal his handiwork. His style is noticeably different, but for the sake of full disclosure, he included his signature on the sole of the infant’s shoe.

Virtual reconstructions of the full composition make you appreciate how brilliantly Hals orchestrated all the figures and the directions of their gazes. But one can regret the painting’s dismemberment without losing any admiration for the sheer vitality and verve in the Toledo fragment.

In those days, the price of a family portrait like this was determined by the number of people depicted. So it’s clear that the Van Campens, who were Catholic (the Brussels fragment includes the spire of a distant church), were not only fertile but also very wealthy. Gijsbert van Campen was a successful cloth merchant.

Hals has captured Gijsbert’s warm eyes and boxer’s nose with terrific panache. The expressions of his wife, Maria, and all the various children are similarly lively and credible, conveyed with visible brushstrokes that give more weight to variations in tone and color than to the outlines of forms.

I particularly love the expressions of the three children on the right (they are near the center of the original composition). Surrounded by a little storm cell of gesturing hands, they have a fluttering, responsive quality that speaks to all the bubbles of intimate rapport that form and re-form within large and happy families, which — despite what Tolstoy wrote — are not actually all alike, are they?

Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape, early 1620s
Frans Hals (b. 1582). At Toledo Museum of Art.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.