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  • Writer's pictureKim Sajet

No Kidding: Dutch Boys & Their Pet Goats!

I read with interest the New York Times article about the van Campen family portrait by Frans Hals that had been cut up and the pieces reunited by the Toledo Museum of Art. The couple had fourteen children! [Image 1.] And there it was again …two little Dutch 17th century boys playing with a goat! I had just come across more goat-loving children belonging to the Rijksmuseum at the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam [Image 2.], so, I thought to myself, this cannot be a coincidence...and I did some research.

Image 1. Proposed reconstruction of Frans Hals’s complete ‘The Van Campen Family in a Landscape’

It turns out that goats as pets are everywhere from around 1650, suggesting that they were particularly fashionable for privileged Dutch children in the 17th century. Barbara Wells Sarudy’s blog It’s About Time, on April 10, 2016 suggested that in Norse mythology, the God of thunder, Thor, & the Norse goddess Frigg had their chariots pulled by goats, and this served to link children of privilege portrayed on the family estates playing with chariots pulled by goats as signals of their superior birth.

Image 3.Jacob van Loo, Portrait of the Meebeeck Cruywagen Family

The goat however, also had more grown-up associations with masculine virility passed down over thousands of years. In ancient Crete and Greece the God Pan had the hindquarters, legs and horns of a goat and not only lived in fields and woods but was but in nature, especially caves and grottos, as opposed to temples.[i] Pan is famous for his sexual powers and often depicted with an erect phallus, and so it may not be surprising that around 300 C.E. with the spread of Christianity his persona becomes associated with lust and corruption.[ii] The word panic comes from this god! Pan's virility of course could have its positive attributes, especially within the sanctity of marriage in an age of high infant mortality and the need to beget sons.

Image 3. Frans Hals. Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart (fragment)

In Frans Hal's van Campen family portrait, one of the older boys had bridled his pet—a direct reference to Plutarch's famous treatise on the education of children in the Moralia of around 100 C.E directing parents to keep a 'firm rein' on infants as they get older: "…one should with great care and vigilance, bridle the vicious lusts of children, as their youth makes them highly susceptible to stimuli and easily inclined to indulge in all sorts of carnal desire."[iii] With the goat serving as the symbol of untamed natural lust, the bridle became one of moderation or modesty. If not a bridle, some portraits show the goats being controlled with a stick or a whip by little boys, as girls, it seems were considered to have an almost innate sense of shame" that was considered a positive. [iv]

It turns out that the goat was one of the earliest domesticated animals because of their ability to form close bonds with humans, the earliest evidence of this dating to more than 10,000 years ago. Dutch families routinely had goats in addition to dogs as pets, as opposed to sources of food. In contrast, the early American colonists gradually phased out goat husbandry, brought by the hundreds to Jamestown for milk rather than meat, because of their habit of chewing off the bark of apple trees![v]

Finally, the story of the van Campen Family portrait is fascinating in its own right. Judith Dobrzynski discusses its history at length in her Wall Street Journal article of October, 20, 2018. I'd love to see the exhibition titled Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion up until January 6, 2019.

Image 4.In the style of Jacob de Wit, Children playing with a Goat

Image 5.Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Children in a Park,


1. Proposed reconstruction of Frans Hals’s complete ‘The Van Campen Family in a Landscape’ (c. 1623-25) Toledo Museum of


2. . Jacob van Loo, Portrait of the Meebeeck Cruywagen family near the gate of their country home on the Uitweg near Amsterdam. c. 1645, Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum.

3. Frans Hals. Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart (fragment), ca. 1623–25, oil on canvas. 152 x 107.5 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

4. In the style of Jacob de Wit, Children playing with a Goat, 18th century, painting, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

5. Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Children in a Park, 1671, Oil on canvas. The Hermitage

6. Jan Albertzs. Rotius, Portrait of a Boy with a Goat, 1640-1660. Oil on paintng. The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham.

Image 6.Jan Albertzs. Rotius, Portrait of a Boy with a Goat,


[i] Scholars also believe that a Pan-like deity was also worshipped by nomadic tribes spanning Eastern Ukraine and Sothern Russia during the 3rd millennium BCE known today as Proto-Indo-Europe.

[ii] Hearne, Kevin. The Demonization of Pan, 1998.

[iii] Plutarcharch, Moralia, c. 100 BCE. Requoted in Bedaux, Jan Baptist and Ekkart, Rudi (eds.), Pride and Joy: Children's Portraits in the Netherlands 1500-1700. Amsterdam: Ludion Press Ghent. 2001. P.218.

[iv] van Beverwijk, Johan., Schat der Gesontheyt, 1636. Cited in Bedaux & Ekkart, Ibid.,p. 218

[v] De John Anderson, Virginia. Creatures of Empire. How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. P.110.

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