by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Man who put a smile on Dutch faces

By Roderick Conway Morris
3 November 2023
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen by Frans Hals, c.1622



'You must slap it on boldly, if you become secure in art the neatness will come of its own accord,' Frans Hals is recorded as urging the apprentices who trained in his studio.

This flatly contradicted the advice of Hals's erstwhile teacher Karel van Mander, who advised his students 'to make a lot of effort at first and to accustom yourself, diligently, to a clean technique and a neat beginning.'

Van Mander, also the author of the most influential 17th-century Dutch publication on art, 'The Schilder-Boeck' (Book of Painting) of 1604, endorsed the conventional view of his times whereby history painting, embracing religious and mythological subjects, followed by landscape, were regarded as genres much superior to portraiture. He despaired that, for aspiring young artists, 'it is mostly portraits that they get the opportunity to paint; so that most of them, because of the allure of profit, or for their survival, usually take this side-road of art.'

Once again, Hals ignored the advice of his mentor and resolutely took this supposed artistic byway. Of his roughly 220 surviving canvases and panels, four-fifths are portraits and even the majority of the remaining genre pieces seem evidently based on specific individuals. However, by pursuing this course with such brilliance, Hals established himself, along with Vermeer and Rembrandt, as one of the greatest of all the artists of the Dutch Golden Age.

Nonetheless, subsequently Hals did suffer from a decline in reputation. This was revived in the 19th century largely by the critic and collector Théophile Thoré, who also rescued Vermeer from obscurity. As Thoré enthusiastically noted of Hals in 1860: 'All his brushstrokes stand out, aimed exactly and wittily where intended. One could say that Frans Hals painted as if fencing, and that he flicked his brush as if it were a foil.'

However, it was not only Hals's virtuoso brushwork upon which his greatness rested. His extraordinary powers of observation; the originality and variety of his poses; his artfulness in conveying interaction in group portraits; his unique abilities in depicting conviviality, even laughter; and his sheer humanity were equally significant in the making of him as an artist, as is vividly demonstrated by an exhibition, Frans Hals, at the National Gallery, thoughtfully and stylishly curated by Bart Cornelis.

Frans Hals was born in Antwerp in 1582/3. Between 1584 and 1585 the city was besieged by Spanish Catholic forces during the decades-long struggle for Dutch independence from the Habsburg empire. The town surrendered in August 1585 and supporters of the Reformation were given four years to leave. Antwerp was then the most important and most cosmopolitan port in Europe and in size second only to Paris. But it is reckoned that over half the population decamped, among them Frans's family (in 1585-86).

Most of the refugees went northwards to Holland, where Frans's father, a cloth-cutter, found work in Haarlem. That city's population of 18,000 in 1570 rose to 40,000 in 1620, mainly as a result of immigration, half the population by then reckoned to be incomers. Curiously enough, although the artist arrived there as a mere infant, many years later he was still being referred to as 'Frans Hals of Antwerp'.

Even by Dutch standards - demand for pictures in the Netherlands was vastly greater than anywhere else in Europe - in proportion to its size Haarlem had a particularly lively artistic scene. The city proved fertile ground for the young Frans Hals, whose his first known canvases date to his late twenties when he joined the local artists' Guild of St. Luke in 1610.

While we know little of Hals's early training, he was certainly one of the first in the Northern Netherlands to adopt the flamboyant style of brushwork, more associated with the Antwerp painters Rubens and his school, in contrast to the local 'smooth' style practiced by Karel van Mander and his colleagues.

His 'bold, rough' approach was clearly appealing to a number of local burghers, many of them 'new' men and women rather than descendants of the established upper classes, who were making their fortunes in Haarlem as merchants, brewers and manufacturers. And this clientele, who appreciated Hals's 'modern' style, which reflected the ethos of the emerging Dutch Republic, was to provide the artist with commissions for the rest of his long career.

In 1612 Hals joined Haarlem's St. George's Civic Guards. This led to an invitation in 1615 to paint the corp's officers at the end of their usual three-year term (a task traditionally entrusted to a member if one happened to be an artist). This turned out to be his first major public commission and the panache with which he carried it out won him commissions for five more group portraits through the St. George's Civic Guards over the next two decades, one for a Guards platoon in Amsterdam, and at least four family portraits.

Hals forged close friendships with some of his patrons. Among them were Isaac Abrahamsz Massa, a successful businessman, diplomat and expert on Russia, and his wife Beatrix van der Laen. In 1622, Hals painted a delightful marriage portrait of them, with an ideal Rubinesque garden of love as a backdrop, showing Beatrix barely suppressing an amused smile at her husband's hand-on-heart adoration of her. The following year Isaac became the godfather of the artist's daughter.

Four years later Hals painted a striking informal image of Isaac, caught looking over his shoulder, his arm draped over the back of a chair, with a view through the window in front of him of trees, including conifers, a clear reference to Isaac's connections with Russia and his timber-trading activities.

Centre stage in the artist's Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard of around 1627, is the rosy-cheeked Michiel de Wael, inverting his wine-glass in a gesture of, perhaps temporary, surfeit. In 1625 Hals had executed double portraits of de Wael and his gorgeously attired wife Cunera van Baersdorp. Unusually, she is depicted in an even more assertive hand-on-hip pose (a gesture traditionally reserved for males in portraiture) than de Wael, leaving us in no doubt that here we are in the presence of one of Haarlem's power couples.

Indeed, Hals's portraits of women and girls are among his most unforgettable. These range from his images of young brides and handsome grande dames, to a charming portrait of an anonymous 'Young Girl' of 1658, and of a stall-holder in his 'Young Woman with a Display of Fruit and Vegetables' (painted in collaboration with the still-life artist Claes van Hueussen). His image of a tousled-haired, working-class young girl with a sideways, come-hither glance and an ample cleavage, known as 'La Bohémienne', could be a genre picture, or perhaps a portrait of an actual young prostitute, since such paintings were commissioned at the time to display to potential clients the charms of the girls on offer.

There is only one known full-length, life-sized portrait by Hals: that of Willem van Heythuysen, a wealthy textile merchant, dating from around 1625. He is heroically posed with a rapier, although he never saw action or was even a member of a civic guard. This was displayed in the great hall of his mansion and was apparently the way that he wished the world to see him. However, perhaps not entirely lacking in humour, in about 1638 he commissioned another informal portrait, one of the smallest Hals ever painted in which the sword has been replaced by a riding crop and Heythuysen is seen precariously balanced on a tipped-back chair. This work was destined to be kept his own private quarters.

Before his death in 1668, at the age of 85 or 86, Hals's canvases entered on a yet more audacious stage, his brushwork becoming ever more loose and his risk-taking yet more daring. This development has been periodically attributed to the artist's failing eyesight or his fondness for the bottle. Such is the precision of the painterly effects in the end results that neither impaired vision nor inebriation seem likely explanations.

Among the masterpieces of this late period are his 'Man in Slouch Hat', of about 1660, and his final group portrait, of around 1664, of the 'Regents of the Old Men's Almshouse'. The latter has provoked much discussion since at least one of this august body seems possibly tipsy and another the victim of a stroke. However, this canvas, like so many others, ultimately bears witness to Hals's profound sympathy with his fellow humans, their foibles and vanities, and brings to mind an observation of the poet and connoisseur Constantijn Huygens, made in around 1630, that at its finest portraiture is 'that branch of art that is the wondrous compendium of the whole man - not only man's outward appearance but in my opinion the man himself.'

Frans Hals, National Gallery, London: 30 September - 21 January 2024; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam: 16 February - 9 June 2024; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin: 12 July - 3 November 2024

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024