Art history has long taught that Frans Hals (1582/83 – 1666) wasn’t known as one of the famous painters of the Golden Age until he was “rediscovered” by the French art critic Theophile Thore-Burger in the 19th century.
That’s bunk, according to the Frans Hals Museum of Haarlem.
Additionally, the museum discovered within the last year that Frans Hals, like Tintoretto, painted in the alla prima manner in which a portrait is completed in a single setting without a preliminary study; further, the museum claims that Frans Hals was highly esteemed by some of Europe’s most famous painters and art collectors of the 17th century.
Frans Hals’ legacy was, I believe, his uncanny ability to paint the essence of a brief moment with precise realism but few details. Hals’ teacher, the writer and painter Karel van Mander (1548 – 1606), encouraged his students to paint either very precisely (“neat”) or very coarsely (“rough).
The latter was already seen in late Titian paintings, which were highly regarded. According to van Mander, this style was far harder to achieve – but these paintings from the Frans Hals Museum show that his star pupil mastered it.
Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard, 1616
One of the earliest known Frans Hals paintings, Banquet (above) was ground-breaking because it resembled a photograph – it’s as if the celebrating Guards have abruptly turned to confront an intruder. The work was so highly valued that around 1685, the Haarlem burgomasters requisitioned it to hang in the Prinsenhof, the town hall in which the most prized paintings were exhibited.
Pekelharing, c. 1628 – 1630
Pekelharing, literally Dutch for “pickelled herring”, was a reference to a “tankard-gazer”, or what English speakers call a drunkard. Like many Frans Hals portraits — which comprise 85% of his known works – the sitter is lively, smiling with his head cocked back, and inebriated.
One of Frans Hals’ best-known genre paintings, Pekelharing is the sole painting on which he signed his surname in full, suggesting that Hals considered this one of his best paintings.
Two Laughing Boys, c. 1628
Frans Hals’ adoption of the “rough manner” echoed the same earlier style found in Tintoretto and Titian paintings. Although many painters shied away from the difficulty of painting laughter, Hals embraced it, making laughing faces one of his trademarks.
The looseness of Frans Hals’ brushwork creates movement, as seen in the faces of Two Laughing Boys. Yet Hals could perfect details, too — the fur hat nearly protrudes from the canvas.
Here, one boy pretends to be a pekelharing, prompting giggles from both of them. Hals has brilliantly depicted the spontaneity of a joyful, fleeting moment, a hallmark that would come to define his works.
This work was stolen in 2011 from its museum, and found five months later, intact.
Nicolaes van der Meer, 1631
Frans Hals was commissioned in 1630 to paint a portrait of Nicolaes van der Meer, a prominent Haarlem magistrate and rich brewer.
It would be hard to imagine that Hals didn’t know (and reference) two portraits:
- Peter Paul Rubens’ Portrait of Jan Vermoelen, 1616 (right), and
- Anthony van Dyck’s Portrait of a 55 Year Old Man, c. 1618 (left).
All three works are three-quarter length portraits of a man dressed in black near a chair upholstered in gold-tooled leather.
Rubens introduced this composition; Van Dyck, Rubens’ star pupil, tweaked his teacher’s portrait by relocating the chair, having the sitter lean into it, and using a light grey background to produce a cooler feeling than in Rubens’ portrait.
Frans Hals introduced his personal “rough” brushwork to create the liveliest portrait of these three (below).
Regents of St. Elisabeth’s Hospital, 1641
In the Golden Age, the administrators and governors of charitable institutions relished having their portraits painted while in office. The result, known as regents’ portraits, were a uniquely Dutch painting subject.
Frans Hals painted the earliest Haarlem regents’ portrait, Regents of St. Elisabeth’s Hospital. With painterly, loose brushwork, Hals captures each of the hospital governors distinctively in a seemingly swift style. The sunlight streaming in on the left is likely related to the place where this work was to be exhibited. Immediacy and movement are masterfully conveyed with one man in the throes of standing up.
Perhaps the composition seems familiar. Twenty-one years later Rembrandt unmistakably replicated Hals’ composition, adopting his technique of conveying movement and liveliness in Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild (below, left).
Frans Hals rightfully belongs in the ranks of famous painters of the 17th century for his unusual ability to capture these fleeting, spontaneous moments in a portrait; for his commanding group portraits; and for his newly discovered talents with painting alla prima.
Although traditional portraiture demanded as close a likeness as possible, Hals was ultimately able to meld realism with his trademark brushwork to create dynamic portraits.
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