Museum Home Research and Conservation An In-Depth Look at Conservation Partnerships Shedding New Light: Frans Hals, Lucas de Clercq and Feyna van Steenkiste

Technical Art History
X-ray details / Faces
 
audio Audio: X-rays reveal a different canvas weave

A Likely Pair?
During treatment, conservators and curators investigated a number of key differences between these portraits which have long raised intriguing questions. Hals employed contrasting brushwork in the two works: broader and more forceful in the male portrait, and tighter and more refined in the female likeness—a common practice in Dutch portraiture of the 1600s and in Hals's oeuvre in particular, but one which is particularly obvious in these works thought to form pair portraits of a married couple.

Intriguingly, Hals further differentiated between the male and female likenesses by using different supports: he used a finely woven canvas for Feyna's portrait and a coarser one for Lucas's. Also, unusually, Feyna's portrait bears an inscription giving her age (31) and the date that her portrait was painted (1635), but not Lucas's. Scholars have wondered whether Hals painted these works at different times, and even whether they should be considered companion pictures. After cleaning, not only are the portraits more legible, but their status as a pair has been strengthened.

Laurent Sozzani Describes Hals's Canvases
Laurent Sozzani, senior paintings restorer at the Rijksmuseum, describes the analysis he performed at the Getty Center and what it revealed.

Technical analysis confirmed another difference between the two works: the canvases were primed with different grounds. The ground used to prime Feyna's portrait contains vermilion, while the ground layer of Lucas's portrait contains red earth. This may simply be the consequence of the different canvas weaves or it could indicate slightly different time frames for the execution of the paintings.

Varnish removal revealed that the background of Lucas's portrait had received strong cleaning in the past. The subtle modulations Hals used to create the neutral background, perhaps a wall, as well as the sense of atmosphere around the figure, had been disrupted. A well-preserved section remained, however, in the space between the sitter's torso and his crooked elbow. By comparing the better-preserved background of Feyna's portrait with Lucas's, conservators determined that Hals created the grayish background by applying a brushy glaze or scumbling of lighter paint over a darker underlayer. Extensive retouching was required in Lucas's portrait to regain the subtle grey backdrop vital to creating the physical presence of the sitter.

Lucas's and Feyna's gloves / Hals
 
audio Audio: Sozzani discovers two different types of gloves

When the old varnish was removed, Hals's lively brushwork and the remarkable handling of grays and blacks to render the effect of light on dark fabric became much clearer. Feyna's skirts assumed a greater sense of volume, and a row of decorative buttons down the side of Lucas's breeches emerged, matching those on Feyna's sleeves. Other telling details appeared during the process of cleaning: Lucas wears a thicker glove of buff leather, while Feyna holds thin, very white, gloves for example. Once freed from the dulling effects of old varnish, Lucas's vigorous and expressive countenance, sculpted with broad brushwork, took on a new immediacy. Areas of expressive brushwork, typical of Hals, were also more appreciable after cleaning, notably the swift, assured strokes in black on Lucas's proper left arm that animate the sleeve, and the corresponding definition of fabric behind Feyna's head, as well as the fluid corrections to contours carried out late in the painting process.

Scientific analysis helped to weave the story.