Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism

millet-gleaners-HR

[Image: Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners (1857), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (donation subject to usufruct of Mrs. Pommery)]

One of the leading French painters of mid-19th Century was Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). He was hailed as a realist, a champion of rural France, ally of the peasant and aesthetic pioneer. The current exhibition Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 4 October 2019-12 January 2020; touring to Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 16 February-17 May 2020) situates Millet at the root of much of what became known as French Modernism. It includes works by artists influenced by Millet’s example, with special attention paid to his seminal influence on Van Gogh. This review is from the catalogue.

For the average viewer Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) is as unknown as he is famous. His life and oeuvre – beyond a handful of famous works – are shadowy. It is Courbet and Manet who are revolutionary painters of modern life in the country and town respectively; it is Géricault and Delacroix who are the adventurous titans developing sophisticated hybrid styles; it is Moreau who is a mysterious hermetic artist in dialogue with an imagined Orient; it is Degas who is the multifaceted technical chameleon; it is Ingres who wrestles with reinventing history painting whilst finding new ways to paint distinguished portraits. All of these artists excite scholars and curators set on proving theories and overturn art historical assumptions. One artist who does not command frequent monographic publications and exhibitions is Millet. Why should that be so?

It may largely be down to taste. Millet’s art so comfortably fits the mould of the anecdotal illustration or idealised pastoral that our sensibilities are left cool and unengaged. This is perhaps an incorrect appreciation, as noted later in this review, but it is an understandable conclusion. On a casual level judging themes and motifs, Millet seems a serving of stodgy worthiness drenched in saccharine sentimentality. On a technical level, Millet presents us no problems. He is not an artist of fragments; he is not wracked by doubt and his paintings are not conspicuously hard wrought. Although he is a painter of working people, his art is not overtly reformist. For the leftist, he is not radical enough politically. For the critic and student, his art is certainly rich veins of social and artistic material but offers few clear new “angles”. His art has seemingly nothing to say about the industrial revolution, the growth of the cities or the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. One would search in vain for signs indicating his sympathies regarding the uprising of February 1848 and the Paris Commune. Quite the contrary – Millet appears to revel in the timeless and universal. Again, that is not quite so but superficially there is nothing particularly contemporary to his art.

Millet’s art is a place people retreat to, turning their back on novelty and difficulty. Millet, being a serious artist, has more to him than that but that part is there. One can decide the see the eternal peasant in harmony with the land he cultivates tirelessly and nothing else. Those people are not wrong and – if one is conservatively minded – Millet’s art does provide comfort in its stability and conventionality. Hence it is intriguing to anticipate what curators and scholars of today have to say about this artist to an audience who may be indifferent or even hostile to his vision of rural life.

During his lifetime and for decades after his death, Millet was a hugely popular figure domestically and internationally. His art was widely reproduced. Artists frequently copied Millet’s compositions from original paintings and prints or reproduction prints. A sale of a collection of pastels soon after the artist’s death garnered high prices. On 1 July 1889 The Angelus (c. 1857-9) sold for 553,000 francs, the highest ever price in France for a modern painting. The following year it was sold again for 750,000 francs.

Millet was born in the Normandy countryside. He pursued traditional academic training, and worked in Cherbourg and Paris. Millet was one of the most prominent figures in the Barbizon School, located in the Barbizon region, dedicated to the cause of realist depictions of landscapes and people. They advocated plein air painting and are best known for their naturalistic landscapes.

Simon Kelly states that “by the late 1850s, Millet was supplanting Gustave Courbet as the most subversive painter of peasant life as the latter turned to landscapes and hunting scenes.” Although at least one writer claimed him as a political radical upon his death, most judged him in retrospect as a link in the chain of French art. A key example is the painting that made his name at the 1857 Salon, The Gleaners. It seems that conservatives reacted against The Gleaners for the artist’s apparent sympathy for the workers gathering grain for free after a harvest, at a time when farmers had begun selling the right to glean. He did however not shy from depicting women agricultural workers (fruit pickers, shearers, milkmaids, field hands, sewers). Such unvarnished portrayals of the physical toil and the occasional indignity – particularly upon the fairer sex – drew criticism from more conservative critics when the art appeared in Salons. The ugliness of the figures was caricatured in newspapers.

Late in life, the painter turned to the creation of unpeopled landscape. These were unusual in some respects, departing from the Barbizon credo of composing from direct observation. These are manipulated compositions. One influence on these landscapes was of Japanese prints. The dramatic cropping, high horizon, aerial perspective, tonal recession, blocks of pattern without features all indicate Millet in his last decade drew upon Japanese woodblock prints the way the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists did after him.

His drawings in conté crayon were considered more modern than his paintings. They were looser in execution and less finished; some of them were studies of individual figures. The building of modelling through dense shading prompted much later art, for example Redon and the smoky sfumato of Carrière. Rightly selected for this exhibition are drawing by Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891). The conté drawings of Seurat are wonderful – atmospheric, stark and deeply ambiguous.

The pastels are more vigorous and brightly hued than his paintings. It may be that the pigments of the pastels have fared better than the oils, which is often the case when the oils, siccatives, fillers and adulterants of oil paint deteriorate over time in comparison to the more pigment-heavy medium of pastel. For whatever reason, viewers of a more modern aesthetic temperament may find themselves responding more strongly to the pastels. The Plain (c. 1868) is a fantastic example of tonal recession in a pastel landscape of a featureless expanse of land. The flatness of the ground is contrasted with the dramatic cloud and shafts of sunlight breaking upwards. The grey-blues and pale browns flicker across the depiction, becoming thicker at the horizon and starting to dematerialise the earth and vegetation. It conveys the impression of fine mist gathering between the tussocks of grass. For those who think of Millet as a painter of hearty peasants and sentimental family vignettes, this landscape alone will dispel their assumptions. It is easy to see why Monet revered him. The pastel paintings of sea cliff done by Millet in the 1860s and early 1870s may have been direct influences on Monet, prompting him to tackle the same subject at Honfleur and elsewhere in the 1880s. The pastels where the black conté outlining is too prominent in the landscapes the effects are less successful. These are coloured drawings, rigid and fixed by the demands of “colouring inside the lines”. Recession is diminished, energy confined, immersion broken. The two versions of The Cliffs of Gréville (1871 and 1871-2) have all the tedium of a diligent book illustration.

His great painting Haystacks: Autumn (c. 1874) has travelled from New York. It shows what Millet might yet have developed upon had he not died so soon after finishing this masterpiece. It is a painting full of excitement – the massive alien bulks of haystacks dwarfing the sheep, shepherd and buildings. The transporting inversion is the light lower area and dark sky during daytime, with heavy clouds threatening rain and dramatic shafts of direct sunlight illuminating the ground. In temperate zones we commonly encounter (and hence instinctively understand) landscapes to be dark material below a light sky. With the regular exception of winter snow, this is a rule that holds true almost all the time. When we find the rule inverted, with a dark sky and light ground, it is unusual and striking. Millet did this more than a few times (Spring (c. 1868-73)) and he must have instinctively understood the drama of the inversion even if he did not understand its perceptual basis.

Reproduction prints of Millet by Alfred Delauney (1830-1894) and Jacques Adrien Lavieille (1818-1862) are exhibited. They form an important link because it was frequently the intermediation of illustrators who summarised and transmitted Millet’s art to the broad public, including artists. One of the artists who spent more time with illustrations of Millet than with originals was Van Gogh. The catalogue contains a long essay by Nienke Bakker about Van Gogh’s veneration of Millet and numerous ways he emulated the master: copying directly in sketches, fuller drawings and paintings; adapting Millet’s motifs; adopting Millet’s manner and the peasant genre; invoking his spirit. Van Gogh decided to live in a rural agricultural setting to be closer to working life and garner material for his art. His Potato-Eaters (multiple versions; 1885) was a homage to Millet but envisaged in Dutch chromatic terms.

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Siësta (after Millet) (1889-1890), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (gift of Mrs. Fernand Halphen, née Koenigswarter, 1952)]

 

Painting prints after Millet’s compositions in colour oils was a therapy for Van Gogh while recovering in the asylum of 1889-90. These 20 paintings were a way of forming an emotional bond with common people and families while Van Gogh was deeply depressed and isolated in the asylum, coming to terms with the fact his illness (whatever exactly it was) was serious, chronic and incurable. Abandoning his dream of marriage and fatherhood, realising that he would be forever cut off from ordinary people by his behaviour and the severity of his mental collapses and mania, Van Gogh’s paintings after Millet were a way of adjusting to a radically curtailed future. It was both a way of assuaging his loneliness and finding models when there were few people around him to pose. None of the Millet translations are great paintings. None has the spark of even one of the painted wheat fields, yet the Millet translations are heartfelt and painted with gusto and accomplishment.

Millet’s paintings of country people appealed to Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who was enamoured by the idea of primitivism revitalising art. For that reason he looked to the “less advanced” civilisations, such as those of Panama, Martinique and Tahiti, and also to the less urban, least cosmopolitan parts of France, such as Pont-Aven, Brittany and Arles, Provence. Related to this search for raw authenticity in the nativist French culture and its people, Millet’s art seemed to offer an approach that seemed fruitful for Gauguin. It may be that Millet’s influence was also transmitted to Gauguin via his mentor Pissarro. Art by Post-Impressionists Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) is exhibited and discussed in relation to the model of Millet and his ideas.

Maite van Dijk writes of the influence that Millet had around 1900, at a time when Neo-Impressionism was exhausted and Symbolism and Post-Impressionism were giving way to the radical movements that largely disposed of naturalism (Suprematism, Cubism, Surrealism). Art included in Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism is by Degas, Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli, Jan Toorop, Edvard Munch, Ferdinand Hodler, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and others.

 

[Image: (left) Jean-François Millet, The Angelus (1857-1859), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (bequest of Alfred Chauchard, 1910); (right) Salvador Dalí, Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus (1933-1935), oil on panel, © Salvador Dali, Fundacion Gala-Salvador Dali, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2019]

One of the more notable inclusions is Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). His attachment to the art of Millet may have been part emotional, part fealty to the traditional art of his childhood, but it is in part perverse. What could be more subversive in an avant-garde than to praise pompier painters, academicians and a beloved old warhorse such as Millet? We could say that Dalí was embodying the true spirit of perversity and rebellion that Surrealism demanded by flouting every norm of Modernity. To give his perverse attachment a further twist, Dalí opined publicly about his sexual complex regarding the The Angelus. Dalí’s delirious fantasies fused the personal and universal, the nobility of religion and the animal desire of sex. He interpreted the couple as praying over the body of their son and that the woman was a praying mantis, about to devour the man. The pitchfork in the earth, Dalí saw as a Freudian symbol of copulation. The Angelus was quoted or copied by Dalí in a number of striking paintings and seems to have been a genuine obsession for the artist. The outcome was a sequence of paintings and drawings in the early 1930s. These turned out to some of the best works made during his prime period (roughly 1929-1936, at a stretch up to 1938) and have become art that is fully integrated into Dalí peculiar cosmology and expressed through his “paranoiac-critical method”. Dalí’s responses to Millet are some of the strangest and fertile in this survey.

The absence of Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) from the exhibition and catalogue is a peculiar and serious omission. Meunier is one of the most influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. His working figures were the template for the realism, social realism and Socialist Realism that dominated the period. Indeed, if we were to measure importance according to the quantity of art that followed his lead directly and indirectly, we might say Meunier was much more influential that Van Gogh or Picasso. It may be that Meunier’s preference for the miners, ironworkers, stevedores and other workers in the heavy industries of coal country may have made his art appear dissimilar to Millet. Far from it. Meunier comes directly from Millet. Woman Baking Bread (1854) is a direct forerunner to Meunier’s scenes of workers at a furnace. One does not need to know his bronze reliefs of scything peasants (Musée Meunier, Brussels) to recognise the artistic and temperamental debt that Meunier owes Millet. Surely one of the tangentially related artists could have been dropped from this exhibition to make space for Meunier.

While Millet may never be considered as revolutionary as Courbet, as daring as Gericault and Delacroix, as frank as Degas or as sophisticated as Ingres, this exhibition makes a cogent and carefully presented case for Millet being an important early pioneer of Modernism and one who had a deep influence on the artists who came directly after him. (In much the same way the recent Daubigny exhibition restored his reputation as an innovator in landscape painting.) It is most fitting that this exhibition brings Millet to Van Gogh’s museum. One can imagine the pleasure such an event would have brought Van Gogh. In a way the community of artist he longed to bring together around him has indeed happened posthumously and in his own museum in Amsterdam.

 

Simon Kelly, Maite van Dijk (eds.), Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Saint Louis Art Museum/Thoth, October 2019, paperback, 208pp, 192 col. illus., €29.95, ISBN 978 90 6868 796 5  (Dutch version available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Painting of the Low Countries Golden Age

142 Vermeer_View of Delft ©Mauritshuis

[Image: Jan Vermeer, View of Delft (c. 1660-1), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 115 cm, The Hague, Mauritshaus. (c) Maurithaus, The Hague]

Low Countries painting from the Seventeenth Century is a high point in the arts of Western civilisation and justly called a Golden Age. A new book lavishly presents a selection of its highlights. The German art historian Norbert Wolf examines the Golden Age of art of the Seventeenth Century in the Low Countries, today the states of the Netherlands and Belgium. As befits its prestigious subject, the production of this book is lavish. The large (37 x 31 cm) format and pictorial slipcase are imposing. Wolf’s formidable historical knowledge allows us to trust his judgment as he guides us through the highlights of the century.

The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 brought an end to an eighty-year war of independence in the Low Countries. The States General of the Netherlands gained autonomy from Spanish Habsburg rule, while the South Netherlands remained under the control of the Spanish as the Spanish Netherlands and would eventually become the territory called Belgium. In the North the decline of the aristocracy, foreign control and the religious restrictions of Habsburg control fostered a burgeoning of science, commerce, global exploration and a growth of a prosperous merchant class. Independence also brought about an abrupt end to the Counter Reformation in the North.

The international commerce and colonial expansion led to war with England and a degree of uncertainty about the future. Despite this, the increase in Dutch income and the commensurate spending on the arts was prodigious. The art of the North was predominantly secular and non-religious, though Biblical scenes were made and sold. The religious climate of the North fostered principally portraiture, still-lifes, marines, landscapes and genre scenes. There was morality but it was symbolic and indirect. Wolf points out that there was a fair degree of religious tolerance in the North, with Calvinism a minority sect and diverse Protestant doctrines and Catholicism permitted to be followed by citizens in the North. The situation was less lenient for Protestants in the Catholic South.

In the North the dichotomy between the austerity of Calvinist and Puritan doctrine and the desire of the merchant class to invest (and display) their disposable wealth in the form of art is visible when we look at the art. It was a balance between conspicuous consumption and a belief in moral and aesthetic restraint. The slow decline of art in the Southern Netherlands can be attributed to the effects of its status as a possession of the Spanish crown, notwithstanding the importance of cloth and wool trade of Brabant and Flanders. Only Antwerp and Brussels were significant centres of art production in the South during the Seventeenth Century. Wolf points out that artists migrated between the two states and sought patronage from collectors outside of their home regions. He posits that a fondness for morality contained in genre and peasant scenes common between Northerners and Southerners.

It is possible to see Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) as the dividing point when Netherlandish art becomes the schools of Dutch and Flemish painting, with Bruegel becoming the first stylistically Flemish painter. For convenience we can date 1550 as the point when this division begins to occur. Baroque has a dual meaning: pertaining to Baroque character and the Baroque period. Flemish painting is of both, whereas Dutch painting proper is only Baroque in period, its austere character and lack of ecstatic transcendent religious tone prevent it from being Baroque in content. All of these gradual changes occur before the formal division of the lands in 1648.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) was the son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The sweetness, sentimentality and ethereal fantasies – as well as Catholic religious painting – of Jan Brueghel embody the Flemish school. His paintings of landscapes are characterised by a softness of touch and delicate graduation of depth. He was also noted for his flower pieces. He collaborated with Rubens and formed a link between the first stage of distinctly Flemish art and the art of Rubens and the Baroque period Counter Reformation in the Spanish Netherlands. Rubens can in some respects be seen as the counterpart to Jan’s painterly temperament.

064 Rubens_View of Het Steen ©National Gallery London

[Image: Peter Paul Rubens, A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (c. 1636), oil on wood, 131 x 229 cm, The National Gallery, London. (c) The National Gallery, London]

The scope of the study allows the author to discuss Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), those twin pillars (or poles) of Low Countries Golden Age painting. In addition there was a wealth of art produced by artists not influenced or associated with these two artists. Consider the still-lifes of Willem Kalf, Willem Claesz. Heda and Pieter Claesz, here represented by magnificent examples that are unsurpassed in deftness, clarity and impact. These are instances of the ideal of verisimilitude that Dutch art theorists of the time advanced.

Rubens was a revolutionary figure more for his landscapes than for his figure painting – although his nudes are now his best known motifs. It is curious that Wolf includes the Samson and Delilah (c. 1609?) ascribed to Rubens. This painting was recently bought by the National Gallery, London but is suspected to be a later copy, as it deviates from Rubens standard practice and its composition differs in some important respects from an early engraved copy of the original composition. (For more discussion about this attribution read this post on ArtWatch.)

Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) was Rubens assistant and seen as the artist who best took the mantle of portraitist to the aristocracy. His portrait of Charles I of England is a dazzling extension of Rubens colour and sensitivity, combined with Van Dyck’s flair. Wolf explains the relative statuses of Van Dyck and Rubens as such: “[…] Why does present-day art history nevertheless place Rubens above van Dyck? Primarily because van Dyck’s œuvre does not possess the same versatility, even universality, of that of his teacher, because van Dyck achieved greatness only in the genre of portraiture, whereas Rubens excelled at the portrait as well as the landscape and animal painting, at the monumental altarpiece, as well as at mythological scenes and allegorical sequences.”[i]

Jacob (Jacques) Jordaens (1593-1678) became the painter favoured by the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands after Rubens’s death, furthering the Counter Reformation in his giant canvases. The artist’s undeniable flair for depicting flesh and various textures and for organising a composition made him a worthy recipient of patronage. Wolf illustrates a large genre painting which proves that Jordaens range was larger than the allegories, myths and Biblical scenes by him that are most prominent in museums. He notes that in these genre paintings he is the descendent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The Utrecht Caravaggisti formed the vanguard of Baroque sophistication in the early decades of the Seventeenth Century, influencing following painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. There is little new to be said about Rembrandt. Wolf outlines Rembrandt’s principal contributions to painting, though he cannot mention his comparable innovations in drawing and printmaking. It is regrettable that for reasons of space, non-painting fine and decorative arts have had to have been excluded. The subject of painting of the period (believed to have generated the total production of 5 million paintings) is vast enough without consideration of these other arts. The size and quality of the illustrations allow readers to see Rembrandt’s daring painterly techniques and the emotional range. He rightly holds centre stage in this survey, with only Rubens and Vermeer rivalling him for significance.

Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is seen as the linking figure between Rembrandt and Vermeer. Although long believed that Fabritius – who had been one of Rembrandt’s assistants – was the tutor of Vermeer, this seems not to be the case. However, emotionally and technically, Fabritius’s brilliance, painterly restraint, technical skill, narrative reticence and subtlety lead from Rembrandt to Vermeer. If Fabritius had not been killed at the age of 32 by a giant gunpowder explosion in Delft – which also destroyed many of his paintings – he could have matched Rembrandt and Vermeer in achievement. As with the early deaths of Giorgione, Schiele and Raphael, one wonders what posterity was robbed of due to Fabritius’s untimely death.

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) used the camera obscura in his realistic depictions of women in interiors, although he apparently deviated from the image projected by the optical device. He needed the flexibility or electing to emphasis, remove and change motifs in the images the device produced. It is the second-rate artist who fixes upon a system, device or approach and applies it without deviation. It is the great artist who knows how to apply a system and when to change it to increase the effectiveness of a work of art. It is his judgment that allows him to understand how viewers will see and understand the art and he knows when to suspend the rules he usually implements. His best works are illustrated and the reproduction of the View of Delft benefits especially from the large size allowing us to see the intricate detail so clearly.

Frans Hals is the most significant Dutch portraitist after Rembrandt. His bravura brushwork is on display in the illustrated work. Adriaen Brouwer, David Teniers the Younger (son-in-law of Jan Breughel the Elder) and Adriaen and Isaak van Ostade are fine exponents of the genre painting of the working class engaged in drunken ribaldry. The more genteel scenes of middle-class people in domestic interiors were made by Gerard Dou, Gerard Terborch, Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer. These also included coded moral stories about virtues of chastity, fidelity and restraint, among others. Alongside the still-life, the moralistic genre scene is a Dutch specialisation which has become synonymous with Dutch art. Cornelis Norbertus Gjisbrechts and Samuel van Hoogstraten specialised in trompe-l’œil still-lifes. Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael are representative of the landscape painting that proved so influential in Western and Northern European national schools. The whole of English landscape is essentially an extension of Dutch principles inflected by Italianate topographic features and light. Jan van Goyen was a landscapist who relied on the animation of his scenes with people or animals. The selection seems a touch light on still-lifes and marines and touch heavy on the portraits and figure paintings, but every readers taste will vary. By no means is this selection a distortion or misrepresentation of the character of the best art of this region and era.

111 Rembrandt_Isaac and Rebecca ©Rijksmuseum

[Image: Rembrandt, Isaac and Rebecca (also called The Jewish Bride) (c. 1665), oil on canvas, 121 x 166 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. (c) Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam]

Although most of the names are familiar, some of choices for illustrations are not obvious and some lesser known painters will engage readers. One of the less recognisable paintings is the brilliant Self-Portrait (c. 1651) by David Bailly (1584-1657). This large painting is unusually complex, with the seated figure of the artist placed beside an elaborate still-life with pictures, symbolic attributes, indications of his profession, references to his private life, as well as objects included for their optical variety and attractiveness. The bubbles refer to the briefness of life; the skull acts as a memento mori; the recorder indicates the sensory pleasure of music; the pipe is for the pleasure of smoking; money is the acquisition of worldly riches; the flowers are the brevity of earthly existence. The picture is playful with the complexity of symbolism, yet it is also a commentary on the deceptiveness of art. The painter is shown as a young man yet the painter was aged 67 when he made the picture. It seems that the portrait that the artist holds is not – as we might have guessed – a portrait of his father but actually a true likeness of the artist as he was at the time the self-portrait was created. It is the “real” figure of the artist that is based upon an earlier painting. The portrait of his deceased wife is placed behind the snuffed-out candle. Bailly dazzles us with his technique skill and his command of symbolism – complimenting our wisdom and discernment – at the same time he deceives us with by misrepresenting his age and thereby turning his past self into his present self.

The author concludes with discussion about the nature of the Baroque, the theatricality of painting, symbolism and concludes with some examples of the way Low Countries painting influenced art of later periods and other countries. The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting is an excellent guide to the highlights of this age of giants in the Flemish and Dutch schools.

 

Norbert Wolf, The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting, Prestel, 3 October 2019,  272pp, fully col. illus., hardback in pictorial slipcase, $140/£99, ISBN 978 3 7913 8406 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Frans Hals: A Family Reunion

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A current touring exhibition reunites fragments of a giant family portrait painted by one of the masters of the Golden Age of Dutch painting, Frans Hals (1582/3-1666) (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, 13 October 2018-6 January 2019; touring to Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, 2 February-28 April 2019; Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris, 8 June-25 August 2019). This exhibition comprises nine paintings and one drawing. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.
Hals was born in Antwerp and was taken to Haarlem by his family, who fled the Eighty Year War in the South Netherlands. We know little of his artistic training and early career. He was principally a portrait painter. Four of his sons followed their father in the painting trade. Hals was innovatory as a portraitist, being known for the development of complex expanded multi-figure compositions, capturing informal and lifelike facial expressions and body language and for portraying the individual characters of sitters. He made his trademark the wet-on-wet finish for his paintings, although the paintings were built up in different sessions and it was only the final layer that was painted so vigorously.
Around 1623 Hals was commissioned by a Catholic wool merchant called Gijsbert Claesz of Leiden and his wife van Maria Jorisdr van Campen of Haarlem, who moved to Haarlem after their marriage. The prosperous merchant had a large family of thirteen children and could afford the grand painting that the size of his family necessitated. Only in 2013 was the family securely identified as the van Campens. The book contains a family tree of the van Campen family, documenting the individuals portrayed in the picture. The portrait was apparently commissioned after the birth of the couple’s thirteenth child. When a fourteenth (and final) child was born, it was added to the painting in 1628 but this infant was painted not by Hals but Salomon de Bray, who signed the addition. The choice of artist was a good one, as the figure is painted in a style congruent with the original.

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[Image: Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), The Van Campen Family in a Landscape (fragment) (ca. 1623–25), oil on canvas. 151 x 163.6 cm. Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, inv. 2011.80]

The van Campen painting is the earliest surviving group portrait by Hals. It shows the couple Gijsbert Claesz and Maria Jorisdr van Campen and their children in an outdoor setting. One of the children is being pulled in a miniature cart by a goat. This caprice is seen in another painting of the era. The painting shows the children ranged across the painting, interacting with each other, playfully, attentively, considerately. Thus the family is seen as harmonious, achieving concert through interplay of the natural tendencies of members combining for the benefits of the group collectively. In some paintings of the time, nurses and servants were included but research shows that all of the figures here are related.
The painting shows Hals’s abilities at his best and clearest, also demonstrates the competence of the artist as a composer of complex multi-figure tableaux. The painting is full of observant touches and individuality without neglecting propriety. It is easy to see why Hals was so esteemed in his time and later. One wonders about the painter’s later poverty, whether this was down to changing fashion, financial incompetence or the effect of competition. This book does not discuss Hals career as a whole.
The principal reason the painting was dismembered was probably practicality. Originally, the canvas is estimated to have been 153.5 cm high and about 333 cm wide. Scrutiny reveals that there is also slight water damage. At some point before 1810, the canvas was cut into three or four pieces. The original group portrait was divided into at least three parts, namely The Van Campen Family in a Landscape (all c. 1623-5; Toledo Museum of Art), Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels) and Portrait of a Boy of the Van Campen Family (private collection). There may have been a further fourth section with two children but that remains unidentified or has been lost. The exhibition reunites the three parts for the first time in two centuries. It also includes six other portraits by Hals, including the large group portrait from the National Gallery, London. The catalogue illustrates examples of Dutch painted portraits, including Rubens’s wonderful double portrait of the artist and his wife, which fleshes out the genre that Hals’s paintings occupied.

6._proposed_reconstruction_of_frans_halss_complete_the_van_campen_family_in_a_landscape._liesbeth_de_belie_and_catherine_van_herck_media

[Image: composite of full painting using 3 fragments and adapted additions]

The catalogue illustrates composites of the complete painting. A fascinating sequence of reconstructions shows how other experts have previously conjectured the original painting would have been, each limited by the circumstances. It includes forensic details that help to reconstruct the exact size of the original canvas. The authors present the current state of knowledge about the van Campen painting, discussing provenance, technical analysis, the extent of historic repainting and suggestions about the content of the lost section. This book studies Hals as a portrait painter and the practice of Seventeenth Century Dutch portraiture, with good examples reproduced. This succinct but informative title would make a good introduction to Dutch portraiture for students, as well as being an approachable addition to the corpus of Hals scholarship.

Lawrence W. Nichols, Liesbeth De Belie & Pieter Biesboer, Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion, 2018, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium/Hirmer, hardback, 112pp, 70 col., £20, illus., ISBN 978 3 7774 3007 2

© 2018 Alexander Adams
View my art and books at http://www.alexanderadams.art