Broken Family Reunited on Museum Walls

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Still from “SISTER WENDY Botticelli Birth of a Venus” Courtesy

When I read the recent obituary (December 30, 2018) for Sister Wendy Beckett in the LA Times, I smiled. She died in England, at a Carmelite Monastery at age 88. You may ask, “Edward, why did you smile?” Because, that’s how millions of viewers of the famous BBC series Sister Wendy’s Odyssey remember her – she was always smiling, while talking about great works of art in museums all around the world.

Still from “Rothko and Warhol” ( Courtesy debbidbu

And talking like a friend, not lecturing as a professor. Sister Wendy had the rare ability to convey not only her deep knowledge of, but her passion for, art. Standing either in front of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, or Boticelli’s Birth of Venus, she would invite the camera and viewers to come closer, to look at the details, to see the brushwork, to “touch” the surface with our eyes.

Still from “SISTER WENDY Botticelli Birth of a Venus” ( Courtesy FHSSievert

Known for her “mischievous humor” and charming lisp, she was admired for profound statements about art and religion. So, let me quote Sister Wendy: “If you don’t know about God, art is the only thing that can set you free. It challenges the human spirit to accept a deeper reality” (LA Times). That was the gospel, according to Sister Wendy.

Frans Hals. “The Van Campen Family in a Landscape”. ~1603-1666. The left half is in the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art, with an extra baby lower left added by Salomon de Bray in 1628. The Center is in the collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. A third fragment on the far right from a European private collection make up the three known surviving pieces of the original portrait. Pictured as displayed in the Toledo Museum of Art during the exhibition "Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion". Image courtesy Wikipedia

Now, I wonder what Sister Wendy would have said about a family with fourteen children who were separated a long time ago, only to be reunited recently? I am not talking about the heartbreaking stories of children separated from parents at our southern border.

No, I am talking about the 17 th century Dutch Van Campen family, who, 400 years ago, were painted by Frans Hals. After Rembrandt, Frans Hals was the most famous Dutch painter, whose work was highly sought after. It’s not exactly known when this large painting was cut up into smaller parts, but it was done to allow for the owner to make extra money by selling multiple pieces. A few months ago, the Toledo Museum of Art managed to get most of these canvases in one room for the exhibition, "Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion." It’s painful to think that now that the exhibition is over, this great painting and family will be broken apart once again.

Vitorre Carpaccio. “Hunting on the Lagoon”.  ~1490-1495. Image courtesy Wikipedia

In a similar situation years ago, The Getty Museum temporarily unified a great painting by Vittore Carpaccio, the famous 15 th century Venetian artist. The Getty owns only half of this painting; the other one belongs to a museum in Venice.

Vitorre Carpaccio. “Two Venetian Ladies”. ~1490-1510. Image courtesy Wikipedia

It was a sheer delight to see this masterpiece the way the artist meant it to be – two elegantly dressed young women, sitting on their balcony terrace with a gorgeous view of a lagoon, with men in boats hunting. And it was devastating to know that, after only a couple of months on view, the painting would be once again separated.

Vitorre Carpaccio. Two Venetian Ladies and Hunting in the Lagoon, reconstitution. Image courtesy Wikipedia

I wonder if, in both cases—with the paintings by Frans Hals and Vittore Carpaccio—the museums contemplated doing what I consider to be the right thing: to unify once and for all these cut apart paintings. Yes, it would take a lot of negotiation. The museum lucky enough to get the unified painting would probably have to agree, in exchange, to compensate by exchanging an important artwork from its permanent collection. But for that to happen, museums must first decide: what do they love most – themselves, or the art? I have no doubt what Sister Wendy would say…



Kathleen Yore