Scholars have reunited the portrait of a 17th-century family by the Antwerp-based portrait painter Cornelis de Vos (1584-1651). Almost 200 years ago, the painting was torn apart leaving the father and son as a standalone painting in Denmark, whilst the side depicting the mother ended up in London.
“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,” remarked Andrea Rygg Karberg, the director of the Nivaagaard Collection museum in Denmark. “The mother now looks out at us together with her son, whose gaze is so similar to hers.”
There were several clues in ‘Double Portrait of a Father and Son’, now held in the Nivaagaard Collection, that suggested someone else was once present in the painting. In the lower right-hand corner, experts noticed a glimpse of a woman’s dress and part of a chair.
A joint research project between The Nivaagaard Collection and the RKD-Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague launched in 2022 in order to solve the mystery of the missing painting. Researchers uncovered photographs from a 1966 conservation report by the National Gallery of Denmark that revealed the painting had also once shown a woman’s arm holding a pair of embroidered gloves.
After comparing these details with other female portraits by De Vos, researchers finally identified ‘Portrait of a Lady’ from 1626 as the missing piece. It depicts an elegant woman with a large millstone collar, matching the father’s collar in the double portrait, and piercing brown eyes that match those of the little boy. Although the identity of the family remains unknown, they were clearly members of the wealthy bourgeoisie in 17th-century Belgium.
“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!” explained Angela Jager, one of the project’s researchers. “We see the family’s wealth and influence reflected in their rich clothes and the lady’s golden jewellery. 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.”
In 2014, ‘Portrait of a Lady’ was sold at Christie’s in London by the Amsterdam-based dealer Salomon Lilian. It was most likely split into a standalone painting between 1830 and 1859, possibly after the original had sustained some damage.
A grant from the New Carlsberg Foundation in Copenhagen allowed the Nivaagaard Collection to acquire the portrait of the mother; the tender family portrait is now together at last, permanently displayed side-by-side at the museum.
Rygg Karberg noted that “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.”