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Family Reunion: Two Dutch Portraits Brought Back Together After 200 Years

March 16, 2023
A double portrait of a father and son, both dressed in black wearing ruffs. The young son gently holds the father's hand as the two look directly at the viewer. The background consists of a colonnade, an overcast sky, and a line of poplar trees.

Double Portrait of a Father and Son by Cornelis de Vos

People can do a lot through the power of the Internet. In December, I wrote about how a Massachusetts art collector tracked down a stolen masterwork by the Dutch Golden Age painter Hendrick Avercamp because of an image of the painting used to decorate a throw pillow advertised online for $18. But now, more Internet sleuths have fixed something that has quite literally been broken for two centuries.

Double Portrait of a Father and Son by the Antwerp portraitist Cornelis de Vos hangs at the Nivaagaard Collection, a small museum about a half-hour drive north of Copenhagen. It mainly consists of a historic estate with beautifully-manicured gardens and a world-class art collection. The museum features many works by northern European artists from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, including Rembrandt, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Pieter Claesz, Johan Christian Dahl, and Wilhelm Marstrand. When signs of a missing third person were discovered, the Nivaagaard Collection’s special consultant Jørgen Wadum teamed up with Angela Jager, a curator at the Netherlands Institute for Art History, to uncover more. The Double Portrait has been a part of the Nivaagaard Collection since its founding in 1908 but was sent to the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen for restoration in 1966. Eagle-eyed art connoisseurs might notice hints of a dress in the bottom right-hand corner, but the existence of a missing mother was confirmed when photos from the 1966 restoration show the canvas taken out of its frame, revealing a hidden hand.

Portrait of a lady wearing a large ruff and pearl earrings against an overcast sky background.

Portrait of a Lady by Cornelis de Vos

It took little effort to locate the lost third figure. Wadum says that he found the mother after a quick Google search, leading to a portrait of a woman wearing a ruff similar to the father’s. Portrait of a Lady was likely separated from the family portrait sometime in the mid-nineteenth century after being damaged. It was last sold at auction at Christie’s London in 2014 for £​​292K w/p to Salomon Lilian, a gallery owner in Amsterdam and Geneva specializing in Dutch Old Master paintings. Originally, the background was a plainer dark brown. Lilian’s restoration uncovered the original overcast sky and treeline, making the connection to the Double Portrait that much easier. After this discovery, a grant from the New Carlsberg Foundation allowed the Nivaagaard Collection to buy the portrait from Lilian. Now, after nearly two hundred years apart, the whole family has been reunited again.