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20 September 2023

Frans Hals and the will to life

Where Rembrandt painted introspection, the Haarlem portraitist showed people as social creatures.

By Michael Prodger

In 1630, the Dutch poet and diplomat Constantijn Huygens defined the best portraits as being “the wondrous compendium of the whole man – not only man’s outward appearance but in my opinion his mind as well”. It is a description that perfectly fits Rembrandt, and indeed Huygens was one of the first connoisseurs to recognise the young painter’s uniqueness when he met him in 1629. Huygens may though have been thinking of another figure too, the slightly older artist, Frans Hals (1582-1666).

If Rembrandt was the ultimate painter of psychological depths then Hals was pre-eminent in depicting the will to life. His portraits show both the animate and animation, and he was unparalleled in capturing his subjects’ vivacity, humour and conviviality. Rembrandt’s sitters, notably himself, can be introspective, but Hals showed his as social creatures. The men and women he painted can be found on every street today, everyone knows one, and in Hals’s portraits they catch our eye as we pass.

What gives them vitality on canvas is not just expression and informality of pose but Hals’s energetic and open brushwork. He made no attempt to hide the workings of his hand but, especially in his later pictures, applied paint with extraordinary freedom so that up-close details such as a sash or a collar are indecipherable, seemingly abstract clusters of rapid marks that only coalesce into recognisable forms as the viewer steps back.

He wasn’t the first artist to develop such a method – El Greco and late Titian, for example, had pushed their techniques way beyond what was normal – and while some of his contemporaries lauded his handling as “rough and bold, with a lively touch”, others derided his style as “sloppy”. There was also a long debate about what constitutes a finished Hals portrait: were they essentially oil sketches writ large? However, for his patrons – middle-ranking sorts from among Haarlem’s brewers and cloth merchants – he was a modern artist and they were modern men and women.

With its new exhibition, the National Gallery is offering an opportunity to examine Hals’s style at close quarters and weigh his merits against those of the other two most significant painters in the Dutch Golden Age trinity, Rembrandt and Vermeer. It has brought together 50 of his pictures and represents the most significant gathering of Hals’s work on these shores for 30 years.

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Quite how Hals acquired his style is unclear. He was born in Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands and fled with his parents when the city fell to Habsburg troops in 1585. He was in Haarlem by 1591 (his father was a cloth merchant and Haarlem was a centre of the fabric business) and would remain there for the rest of his life. He trained under another émigré, Karel van Mander, who was both a painter – although no admirer of portraiture – and author of a Giorgio Vasari-style book of artist biographies, Het Schilder-boeck (1604). In 1610 Hals was elected a member of the local painters’ guild and earned a living restoring the city’s art collection before proper commissions started to arrive.

As with his younger contemporary Vermeer, the amount of contemporary biographical material about Hals is sparse. There are, unfortunately, no sitter accounts of what the experience of being painted by him was like but the popular image of him as a drinker was due to Arnold Houbraken, another painter-writer who included Hals in his own book of artist biographies, The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters and Paintresses (1718-21).

[See also: The froideur of Theresa May’s parliament portrait]

Some 50 years after Hals’s death, Houbraken wrote that, “It was Frans’s custom to fill himself to the gills each evening” and added that he had a deleterious influence on his 15 children. The characterisation was probably influenced by the merry drinkers Hals often painted, a topic by no means unique to him, but the reputation stuck. Matthias Scheits, a German painter who visited the Dutch Republic, left a rather more open-to-interpretation comment: Hals, he said, had been “rather high-spirited in his youth” – in some translations “high-spirited” is rendered as “lusty”.

Certainly, he struggled in later life financially, with fellow painters commissioning their portraits from him as a way of giving him work. He had a modest art collection, the fruit of his side-line activities as an art appraiser and dealer, that he was forced to use as collateral against a debt he owed his baker. And he once tried to buy a picture by his fellow Haarlem artist Hendrick Goltzius but was refused the painting when he couldn’t produce ready money.

Male gaze: Frans Hals’s Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard (1627). Photo by Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem

For all his financial precarity, Hals could be extraordinarily bloody-minded. In 1633, he was commissioned by the St George militia company of Amsterdam’s District XI to paint a joint portrait of the members for their headquarters. Hals had by this point completed three major civic guard portraits but it was nevertheless an honour, and a reflection of his renown, that a Haarlem painter was commissioned by an Amsterdam group. It was agreed that he would travel to Amsterdam for the sittings and that he would be paid 60 guilders for each of the 16 militiamen included in the picture.

Although the painting, The Meagre Company, progressed well, Hals soon stopped work, complaining that the travel was too irksome and that he wanted the sitters to come to him, that he wasn’t being reimbursed for his accommodation while in Amsterdam, and that the apprentices in his studio needed his supervision. He was offered an extra six guilders per figure (each man paid for his own portrait) but, for some reason, Hals preferred to turn down the whole substantial fee rather than complete the painting. In the event, an Amsterdam artist, Pieter Codde, was called upon to paint the missing seven sitters.

The civic guard paintings Hals did complete show why the Amsterdammers wanted him so badly. It was an established but difficult genre, the problem being how to organise such huge works, some 2.5 metres wide (not quite as massive as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch of 1642), but filled with figures, and keep them lively and natural rather than presenting a shooting gallery of stiff poses. Hals understood the dynamics of such gatherings – he served in Haarlem’s own St George civic guard – and painted a series of linked interactions. A group in conversation is tied to other members by a gesture, a look, a raised glass. A guard flag points diagonally across the canvas leading the eye from one side to another; the sashes of the members show their community; a serving man offering drinks brings a moment of movement and incident; some members are absorbed with one another, some look out at the viewer – an invitation to step in and join them. “They seem to want to talk to us,” said Houbraken.

Although there are a few lost non-portraits – a Denial of Peter and a Democritus and Heraclitus among them – every surviving Hals painting, 220 in total, is either a portrait proper or a portrait study in the form of a genre piece: both Rembrandt and Vermeer also painted “character heads” known as tronies. If there was one thing Hals understood, it was faces, expressions and postures.

The Laughing Cavalier (1624), for example, the portrait that drove the revival of the painter’s reputation in the late 19th century, owes its standing not just to the then record price of 51,000 francs paid for it by the Marquess of Hertford in 1865, but to the immediacy of the figure and the recognisability of the type. This unknown 26-year-old is neither laughing nor a cavalier, but gazes out at us infinitely pleased with himself, trussed up in the latest French fashion, yet with a look of condescension on his face. The portrait is an example of what Hals’s patron, the poet Theodorus Schrevelius, identified as the artist’s great gift: he painted with “such force and life that he seems to challenge nature herself with his brush”.

In 1638, Hals reused the dapper young buck’s pose in his portrait of a much older man, Nicolaes Pietersz Duyst van Voorhout. The assurance of youth has here been replaced with a kind of nervous bombast as the red-faced brewer, the grey silk of his jacket straining over his paunch, attempts to project a confidence and swagger he doesn’t necessarily feel.

More intimate are the variations he made of sitters turning in their chair to face the painter – an informal pose Hals invented and to which he returned over four decades. These are both records of faces that Hals often knew well – Isaac Massa (1626) and Pieter van den Broecke (circa 1633) were witnesses at the baptism of one of his daughters – and also of encounters. There is no hint of the act of being painted inducing self-consciousness, but of conversations being picked up in the studio that started in the tavern or reception room.

Hals seems to have known the majority of his sitters and this may be true too in the case of the woman he painted in scuffs or brown and white in the mid-1630s. Malle Babbe (Mad Babbe) shows a smiling-grimacing woman with an owl on her shoulder – a reference perhaps to the Dutch proverb “as drunk as an owl” – pausing in the act of drinking from a large tankard to speak to someone out of frame. She may have been based on a local figure, Barbara Claes, who at one point was in the same workhouse as one of Hals’s sons. Whether tronie or portrait, she is painted without judgement. It is hard to discern her as a figure of either sympathy or fun, rather than simply another rich character in the Haarlem cavalcade, just as he painted a similarly brisk portrait of René Descartes in 1649 when the philosopher sought solitude in a nearby village.

In his biography, Houbraken recounts a possibly apocryphal scene in which another Antwerp-born portraitist, Anthony van Dyck, praises Hals while lamenting that he fell just short of “the greatest masters”. Nevertheless, he was fascinated by Hals’s technique, which he deemed peerless in its facility. “It is said that it was his custom to lay his portraits on thickly and wetly and only later apply the brush strokes, saying: Now the essence of the master must go in.” Whether he was painting penseur or merchant, charity case or friend, Hals always honoured them by putting his essence in.

Frans Hals
National Gallery, London WC2
30 September – 21 January 2024

[See also: A baffling but brilliant ride through Birmingham’s surrealist scene]

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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers