An on-going research project led by a Danish and a Dutch researcher at The Nivaagaard Collection in Denmark has resulted in the incredible discovery of a woman missing from a family portrait, which has depicted the family without its mother for nearly 200 years. The baroque portrait was painted in 1626 by Flemish master Cornelis de Vos. The woman has now been reunited with her husband and son in the portrait at The Nivaagaard Collection thanks to a generous grant, allowing visitors to contemplate the entire family together.
The Nivaagaard Collection is home to one of Denmark’s most important collections of Dutch baroque paintings, with works by artists such as Rembrandt, Hobbema, Pieter Claesz and Jan van Goyen. Among the collection is the large Double Portrait of a Father and Son (138 x 119 cm), painted in 1626 by the renowned and prestigious Antwerp portrait painter, Cornelis de Vos (1584–1651).
The double portrait depicts two generations of a wealthy bourgeois family in the form of a father tenderly holding his son by the hand. Part of a dress can be seen in the lower right-hand corner of the painting, indicating that the work once also depicted a mother who must have subsequently been cropped away.
As part of a current major research project on the museum’s Dutch baroque collection with Prof.em. Dr. Jørgen Wadum, special consultant at The Nivaagaard Collection and Dr. Angela Jager, curator at the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History, the researchers went into the hunt for traces of the missing mother last year.
They found a conservation report from the year 1966 at the National Museum of Art in Copenhagen containing photographs which show the artwork without its frame and in a cleaned and restored condition: Old and yellowed varnish and a top-layer of paint had been removed, uncovering a part of the missing woman’s arm, her elaborate cuff and her delicate hand, adorned with a costly ring and holding a pair of beautifully embroidered gloves lined with red velvet.
This discovery cast fresh light on how grand and elegant the double portrait must have been, and it renewed hopes that the mother could be returned to her brown-eyed son.
To their great excitement, the researchers’ hunt for comparable portraits by de Vos led them to identify a portrait of a woman with a large millstone collar like that of the father: It was Cornelis de Vos’ Portrait of a Lady from 1626, which was auctioned for sale at Christie’s in London in 2014.
Its background then was dark brown in colour. The new owner, Salomon Lilian, a leading art dealer based in Amsterdam and Geneva, had the portrait cleaned and restored soon after its acquisition – a process which saw the background slowly removed, revealing it to be a subsequent coat that covered up the original backdrop. Behind the elegant lady, a distant landscape now began to emerge on the left side of the portrait, as well as a blue sky with white horizontal clouds overhead.
A match with the Nivaagaard portrait of the father and son confirmed that the searchers had indeed found the mother missing from the family portrait: The landscape in the background of the double portrait, which shows a dyke and a row of poplar trees behind the boy’s left shoulder, continues in the portrait of the woman. Her facial features and brown eyes match those of the boy. The overcast skies match up in both paintings to such an extent that there can be no doubt the researchers have reunited this family after several hundred years.
It only happens very rarely that divided paintings from that time succeed in being reunited.
Researcher and special consultant Professor Dr. Jørgen Wadum talks about the journey to this surprising discovery:
Spurred on by the black-striped satin skirt that was faintly visible in the lower right corner, we began our search by looking for matchers among all the sitting women in de Vos’ oeuvre, and this turned up dozens of women amongst the archives of RKD and the Getty Research Institute. So we had a pretty good idea as to what the missing woman might look like. But it was only after I Googled ‘portrait of a lady’ that I first found her. And it was totally unexpected! Cornelis de Vos’ Portrait of a Lady appeared as an illustration in an interview the Dutch art dealer Salomon Lilian which had been published online in 2016 in CODART eZine. Digging further back in time, the lady appeared again in 2014 at an auction, this time with a dark-brown background. But fortunately, Lilian had had the painting restored – otherwise we may have missed the link to our double portrait.
The height of the painting of the mother is less than half that of the painting at the Nivaagaard Collection, suggesting that the original work was likely separated carefully into two standalone paintings after sustaining damage, most likely in the period 1830–1859. The earliest mention of the family portrait, by this point already separated and trimmed, dates back to 1859 when it was a part of the collection of John Rushout, 2nd Baron Northwick (1770–1859). It was then purchased by Leroy d’Etoilles. In 1907 it was acquired by the museum’s founder Johannes Hage in Paris.
A grant from the New Carlsberg Foundation allowed The Nivaagaard Collection to acquire the portrait of the mother, reuniting her with her husband and son after a separation of around 200 years.
Museum Director Andrea Rygg Karberg says:
It is a huge scoop for Dutch baroque art history and for our collection that research has led us to the discovery of this incredible female portrait. The mother now looks out at us together with her son, whose gaze is so similar to hers. All three of the subjects take on an entirely new dimension, depth and glow when they are contemplated together as originally intended, rather than in isolation from each other. It is incredibly wonderful that, beyond the researchers’ discovery, we were also able to acquire the portrait, and we are very grateful to the New Carlsberg Foundation for their generous grant covering the full amount. This has made it possible for our visitors to behold the entire family here in Nivå.
The researchers have not yet moved on from the painting, but has instead set their sights on the next question: Who are the family in the painting?
Researcher Angela Jager tells from her ongoing research:
The portraits in their present state contain no heraldic weapon or references to the identification of the family, so I have been searching for clues for the family’s identity in the painting’s provenance. In 1802, a ‘A Family Picture of three Portraits by de Vos’ was auctioned in London. This painting appears at several different auctions from 1812 to 1830 in England, and we have reasons to assume that this is de Vos’ painting before it was cut down in two separate pieces. These later auctions describe the work as ’A Burgomaster, his Wife, and Son by De Vos’. Is this merely an interpretation of the auctioneer, or did the lost upper and lower right corners of the canvas contain an inscription? In any case, the ruling elite is exactly the type of clientele one would expect for a monumental family portrait by the sough-after portrait painter De Vos! We see the family’s wealth and influence reflected in their rich clothes and the lady’s golden jewelry. My research into the identity of the family is ongoing and I’m sure that, with a bit of luck, this mystery will be solved in near future.
To be continued…
The museum's current research project 'Dutch and Flemish Paintings at the Nivaagaard Collection: Attributions, Acquisition History, and the Artistic Significance of Paintings in an International Context' is made possible thanks to the Ministry of Culture's Research Fund, which in 2021 awarded Nivaagaard Collection 775,000 DKK for research into the museum's unique collection of Dutch Baroque art.
Read Politiken's coverage from the day when the reunion took place:
Why did she disappear?
The spectacular news also hit the American media, where researchers Jørgen Wadum and Angela Jager were interviewed by the USA's national radio channel NPR.