We are looking at a family group, a mother and father surrounded by their seven children with a nursemaid holding the latest baby. There are two centres of attention among the sitters, formed around the two youngest children – just what you might expect in a large family.
These poses and interactions might seem spontaneous, but the arrangement is carefully composed. There is, for example, a clear hierarchy of the sexes. The men form the core of the family group, the father centre stage and his two older sons flanking him.
While we don’t know the name of the family, the style of the costumes suggests that it was probably painted in the late 1640s. The canvas has probably been cut down at the top and bottom. The background landscape is by another artist, possibly Pieter de Molijn or Reyer Claesz. Suycker.
Frans Hals was – and still is – much admired for his ability to make his group portraits seem like a spontaneous snapshot of harmonious interactions. They often have the air of the moments just before a formal photograph is taken, when people are still chatting and settling down before the photographer calls them to order.
Here we are looking at a family group with a mother and father surrounded by their seven children, a nursemaid holding the latest baby. There are two centres of attention among the sitters, formed around the two youngest children – just what you might expect in a large family such as this. But while these poses and interactions might at first seem unrehearsed, the arrangement has been carefully composed by Hals and resonates well beyond the naturalism of the interest excited by the youngest children.
There is, for example, a clear division between the sexes and a hierarchy. The male and female members of the family form two clear diagonal lines, separated by the father – one behind and the other in front of him. The men form the core of the family group, the father sitting centre stage with his two older sons flanking him. The boys' poses illustrate their relative maturity, too. The youngest is in a playful mood, distracting his baby sibling with a pink rose or a carnation. His older brother seems to want to join in, but the eldest son leans back slightly. He is amused, but detached: too old for such games. The way he stands behind his parents is suggestive of a new hierarchy to come. One day he will take over from his father as head of the family.
His eldest sister, who is perhaps a little older than him, stands on the right, on the edge both of the picture and of the group. She is supporting her mother, but ready one day to marry and leave the family. As with the boys, Hals suggests the growing maturity of the girls. While the eldest stands ready to help with the childcare, her middle sister is becoming self sufficient. She is the only figure to look out of the picture, catching our eye and drawing us into the moment as she reaches into her basket. We can’t help wondering what she is about to produce; presumably, she is handing out another of the plums that her sisters are holding.
While we don’t know the name of the family, we can tell from the style of the costumes that it was probably painted in the late 1640s. The canvas has probably been cut down at the top and bottom. The background landscape is by another artist, possibly Pieter de Molijn or Reyer Claesz. Suycker, and may have been painted after the figures were completed. Such collaborations were common practice among the highly specialised Dutch and Flemish artists of the seventeenth century.
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