An art history mystery
August 13, 2009
In 2007, neurologist and 1955 alumnus Cornelis “Kees” Van Nuis, donated 16 paintings to the permanent collection at Calvin College. Among them was Barn Interior, a pastoral scene of a woman and two children inside a barn by artist Egbert van der Poel.
Last summer, Joel Zwart, Calvin’s director of exhibitions, sent Barn Interior to Chicago to be cleaned by Barry Bauman, an independent conservator. “What with chemicals and soot and dirt in the air, paintings naturally get darker,” Zwart said, “and when they get cleaned, there’s a change in appearance.”
The flayed pig
When Bauman cleaned Barn Interior, however, the result was not only brightening; it was revelatory. The conservator noticed that a ladder on the painting’s left side had been heavily painted over and that the paint was flaking. And when he had cleaned a little more Bauman discovered a flayed pig—a butchered and stretched pig—hanging upside down from the ladder.
"It was painted over, and the obvious question is, ‘Why was it painted over?’” said Zwart. “Well, it was most likely not covered over by the artist. Very likely a wealthy patron bought it. It’s this grotesque scene, this butchered animal hanging in a barn. And quite likely this patron hired another artist to paint it over to make it what the Dutch call ‘mooi’ (lovely) or ‘gezellig’ (cozy).”
These two version of Barn Interior show the effects of restoration—the uncovering of a flayed pig hanging from a ladder in the painting. Click on each image to see a larger version of the paintings.
The restoration gave the painting a proper focus. “The composition looks a lot different than before, and it looks better,” Zwart said, adding that the flayed pig gives a purpose for the ladder to be in such a prominent place in the painting. The restoration also helped explain a detail in the barn scene: “The kid over here is blowing up the pig’s bladder to use as a toy,” he pointed out.
Bauman’s revelations about Barn Interior were not limited to the pig. The conservator also uncovered a signature and date, thus authenticating the artist of the painting.
Bauman’s research also uncovered a major part of the painting’s biography:
The painting is what is known as a “pendant,” one of a pair of paintings on a shared theme. Barn Interior's companion painting hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
"This happens so rarely in conservation—that you find something so interesting,” Zwart said.
Bauman agreed: “Conservation is generally an invisible profession. Museum attendees are not aware of who performed the conservation work that surrounds them. This is the way it should be,” he said. “It is the object that is important; nevertheless, the conservator’s rewards are tangible and real. ... Discoveries of this nature are rare, but they carry an everlasting satisfaction that a little piece of the history of art is forever realized.” Bauman has posted a case study on Barn Interior on his Web site.
Honoring Van Nuis
Calvin art history professor Henry Luttikhuizen is pleased that the discoveries about the painting put a spotlight on Van Nuis, who died February 7, 2008.
"Kees would have really enjoyed seeing the painting restored. I can readily imagine him chuckling with delight at the conservator's findings,” Luttikhuizen said.
Barn Interior is a Dutch painting of the 17th century, placing its creation "right smack dab in the middle of the Dutch golden age,” Zwart said. "This is probably one of the oldest paintings he gave us.” It and the others paintings donated by Van Nuis, most of them 19th-century Dutch works, formed the basis of the fall 2007 exhibition “Between Nature and Nationality: The Hague School in the 19th Century.”
Van Nuis donated his paintings to Calvin so that they could be enjoyed by a wider audience, Zwart said. The donation was one of two significant gifts of art to the college that provided impetus for building a new campus gallery. “I don’t think Kees knew that we were going to have a new gallery in 2010 … but I think he knew his gift would be a building block toward that,” Zwart said.
He’s looking forward to seeing Barn Interior, in its new Fine Arts Center home. “I can’t wait to hang this painting in the new gallery,” Zwart said. “This is a story that needs to be shared with people.”
~by Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing