Frans Hals, The National Gallery, London, 30 September 2023- 21 January 2024.
By David Berridge
The Montréal Review, December 2023
Regents of the Old Men's Almshouse (1664)
Let’s start in the final room, at the end of the painter’s life, when he is eighty years old. Regents of the Old Men’s Alms House (about 1664) is a wonderful loan from the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, but a viewer has to reckon with its strangeness. Its six male figures suggest but stop short of being both a painting of lively camaraderie, or one of sombre formality. Take the central figure who tries out his Renaissance elbow, but finds hand on hip and arm akimbo generates little foreshortening. Also, the two men in hats on the right lack the animation of eyes and face Hals usually finds in his subjects. But interpreting painted expressions is always risky, so I keep looking back to see if it changes.
In the accompanying Regentesses (from the same year, also in the Frans Hals Museum, not shown here), Hals paints a group of women, focussed and serious about what they are doing, the work to which they will return when the obligation of sitting for their group portrait is over. Hals being Hals he expresses this partly through stunning variation and brushwork on their collars. In the men, the loosest brushwork is in the foreground: a sketchy sleeve plus what resembles Golden Age washing up gloves (the men’s collars are still magnificent, but stand out less). If the Regentesses stand in front of a framed landscape painting, the murk behind the Regents variously suggests a dark wall, vegetation, a grand swoop of curtain. Look awhile and the proportions of the different male figures appear a bit askew, maybe because their broad-rimmed hats function also as their shadows.
Can we see that Hals loathed the Regents? Maybe they are just awkward sitters, who would have benefited from seeing a few earlier paintings in this show, like Portrait of a Couple, probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen (about 1622). This painted couple is often compared to the equally tender and affectionate Self-portrait with Isabella Brant (c. 1610) by Rubens. Like the Flemish artist, Hals captures an affectionate, happy display of coupleness. In the older partners from Family Group in a Landscape (about 1646), that public display of their children and a young black servant gets balanced by the respectful self-absorption of the principal pair.
Portrait of a Couple, Probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen (c. 1622)
Back at the beginning of this exhibition - simply titled Frans Hals - it is all about reunions. In the first room, there is the artist’s earliest known work, Portrait of a Man holding a Skull (about 1612). Whoever the sitter is, this portrait has performed such a role before: when The Wallace Collection had an exhibition in 2021-22 of Frans Hals: The Male Portrait it had a first darkened room to itself. Hals early career is a mystery, the story goes, but then there is this: too accomplished to be by a beginner, but quite conventional, particularly the formal pose, with a hand holding that memento mori of a skull. Maybe when he painted it Hals was thinking, if just for a moment: why don’t we both loosen up a bit, the sitter move around, the brush go about quicker and looser.A Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull (about 1610-14 )
Here, though, the man is not alone but appears with his pendant, Portrait of a Woman standing (about 1612). Husband and wife get reunited here, the woman on the right side according to convention. To balance the skull she fingers a gold chain, as her own reminder of life’s vanities or to display her prosperity, likely both. After three hundred years their coupleness is as intriguing as ever, their bodies turning towards each other whilst eyes look determinedly out, offering a public vow of their intimacy. The man is tighter in the frame to give him a more domineering stature, but there is none of the affection of some later couples painted by Hals, nor the terrible reserve of those Regents.Portrait of a Woman standing, (c1612)
This husband and wife are a good beginning for this show, and not just because of the start to end chronology by which the show is (mostly) organised. It also clues us in to the artist’s proclivity for choreographing relations, be it individuals with their own bodies and chairs; couples, in pedants or together; whole families; those Civic Guard portraits. These last were large orchestrations of male company, sometimes feasting and drinking, always dressed up in their finery, each sitter paying a fee to be included (one includes a Hals self-portrait). Sometimes, as in Militia Company of District XI under the command of Captain Rainier Reael, known as ‘The Meagre Company’, (1633, completed by Pieter Codde 1637), the practicalities got complicated. It had been unusual to hire a non-local artist for the Amsterdam company, and soon neither Hals nor the Civic Guards were prepared to travel for further sittings. Another artist was hired to finish off. At its finest, in Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard (about 1627), Hals creates a bulging, animated, back and forth around the picture plane, almost as if he is capturing a series of photographic decisive moments assembled.
Hals was born in Antwerp, around 1582. Three years later, when the Spanish occupied the city, his parents fled North. He joined the Guild of St Luke of Harlaam in 1610, by which time he was quite old for becoming an independent Master, which leads to that speculation about what he had been up to. Some notes the painter Matthias Scheits scribbled in his copy of Karel van Mander’s Het Schilder-Boeck (Book of Painting) suggests its author to be teacher and master of Frans Hals, who in turn served the same role for Scheits.
If Steven Naylor’s recent The Portraitist: Frans Hals and His World makes the most of a scarcity of biographical details, some apocryphal if persistent tales are also helpful, as found in Arnold Houbraken’s De Groote schouburgh (full translated title: The Great Theatre of Netherlandish Painters and Paintresses), published between 1718 and 1721. So Anthony van Dyck is travelling to England to enter the service of the king. In Haarlem he tries to call on Hals, who is not at home but is found at the pub and told to paint the portrait of his unexpected visitor. Only when the situation is reversed does Hals see from how the man holds palette and brushes he is a painter. When Hals then looks at the painting itself? Hello Van Dyck.
This story is likely adapted from one Pliny the Elder tells about the meeting of Apelles and Protogenes, but it does not seem unreasonable the two artists met. Hals being found in an inn also ties in with Houbraken’s most well-known comments about the artist, that he must ‘generally have been filled to the throat with drink every night’. His commitment to his dissolution, the story goes, stops him following up Van Dyck’s suggestion that Hals too go to the English court.
Such stories attribute to Hals himself an aliveness that is a central signature of his paintings. Aliveness is, of course, a classic trope of art criticism- the art work lacks only breath, as Vasari (translated) complimented. Hals offers something more earthy. I gather some potent details from this show: in Portrait of Pieter van den Broecke (1633) the glance from a quickly taken pose, moustache hairs still settling. That same vivacity as the shining faces of Girl Singing and Boy Playing the Violin (1628, probably the artist’s own children), or the gold, yellow and white crackle of straw in Portrait of Pieter Cornelisz van der Mersch. Consider, too, Portrait of Willem van Heythuysen (1638), its finely dressed figure rocking back in a chair, alongside the idiosyncratic etiquette of the man holding a table knife by its tip in the 1616 St George Civic Guard. Or, amidst strutting male arm’s akimbo, there is a female Renaissance Elbow in Portrait of Cunera van Baersdrop (about 1625). Is she teasing, or making an unconscious, telling adoption of a male pose, that Hals in turn notices and cannot resist painting?
Above all, perhaps, there is the foreshortened hand that thrusts out of Young Man holding a Skull (Vanitas) (about 1627). A swift, daring wedge of shadowed palm, shiny whorls, top-viewed fingernails. Its accomplishment sends me off through the galleries looking at other hands that hold a quill, kipper, flute, an upraised empty glass, a handkerchief, another hand, a jawbone. Hands gloved, or resting upon a guitar string, that get tucked in upon a body with its arms folded. Aside from faces, they are the most visible part of the fleshy body and often, as with Young Man, thrust out of swathes of clothing. The hands of Regents? There seem to be more than there should be, alive with their own choreography of individual and ensemble motivation.
Portrait of Cunera van Baersdrop (about 1625)
Maybe the problem was that the Regents had read Erasmus, whose text on good manners for children - available in Dutch translation, and used in schools - cautioned against ‘uncontrollable giggles that rock the whole body’ (Friso Lammertse contributes an excellent essay on laughter to the National Gallery catalogue, from which all the historical quotes in this essay are taken). Particularly inappropriate, moaned Erasmus, was the person who ‘opens his mouth in a wide rictus, wrinkling his cheeks and revealing his teeth as if he were a dog’.
Hals liked teeth. They show in The Merry Lute Player (about 1624-8), whilst in the small head shots of Laughing Boy with a Wine Glass and Laughing Boy with a Flute (both about 1630) the close-up frame makes the smile of lips and eyes the defining characteristic. Teeth, too, in his portraits of well-known Haarlem street characters: tankard holding Malle Babbe (about 1640), and The Rommel-Pot Player (about 1620), with his surrounding crowd of smiling children. The grin of Laughing Fisher-boy (about 1630) embodies a city-dweller’s projection of contented, happy, seaside lives, whilst how we view the smile of Young Woman (‘La Bohémmienne’) (about 1632) depends whether we agree with the label’s suggestion it was hung in a brothel to help clients select from the women who worked there.
Wander through these galleries and figures recur. A Civic Guard ages dramatically across two paintings, but above all there are frequent meetings with Isaac Abrahamsz Massa. Likely the man in the affectionate Portrait of a Couple of 1622, there he is again, in Portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz Massa (1626), leaning over the chair back, as close as possible to painter and viewer but confidently looking past us. A sprig of holly in his hands might indicate friendship, but its structure also mirrors the conifers in a painted landscape at the top right, which likely refers to this grain merchant’s extensive economic activities in the Baltics and Russia.
Portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz Massa (1626)
Maybe Massa himself suggested such details to his painter. In another 1622 portrait, conservationists from The National Gallery have discovered, over Massa’s shoulder, details later painted over: a skull and skeleton, also a snake-haired creature holding a red heart at its mouth. This fits with images of Envy from prints and emblem books. Whilst Hals usually avoids such symbols in his painting, they were certainly part of Dutch culture, and Hals and Massa would have been used to seeing painted figures representing variously love, hate, sloth and wisdom. Hals himself was a keen long standing member of the Wijngaertrancken (Vine Tendrils), one of Haarlem’s three chambers of rhetoric, whose dramatic performances often featured such embodiments.
Does this way of looking linger elsewhere in paintings by Hals? Young Man and Woman in an Inn (1623, not shown here) has been equated with mentions in several inventories of a painting by Hals of the biblical Prodigal Son, but this may have been an attribution of later owners, not the artist. Going back and forth in The National Gallery it occurred to me how, in the economic prosperity of this Dutch society, decorative elements of fashion and costume acquire a presence equivalent to emblematic symbols.
Take, for example, the embroidered silk sleeve of The Laughing Cavalier (1624), whose lavish decoration abounds in emblems for love - bees, tongues of fire, cornucopiae, an obelisk or pyramid- but whose sartorial splendour seems to overwhelm - or assume for itself - emblematic importance. Such luxury has become much more loosely painted by the time of Portrait of Jasper Schade (1645) and his taffeta jacket, but there is no doubting the shared chutzpah of male fashion and peacockery. Then again, Portrait of Willem van Heythuysen (about 1625) might put them both in the fashion shade. He has the unusual pleasure of posing full-length and lace-trimmed in front of lilac drapery hung from Classical-seeming architecture, roses on the earth at his feet, a formal garden in the distance. Hand firmly on a sword planted in the ground, he has plenty of room and swagger for his Renaissance elbow to really strut out its significations, which likely include a bachelor’s pride at his solo finery, particularly as compared to a drably painted couple undistinguished in the garden behind.
The Laughing Cavalier (1624)
Here, too, I realise something of this exhibition’s argument. Although it might be partly informed by the availability of loans, this show does lack the artist’s more extreme paintings of drunken revelry, like Merrymakers at Shrovetide (about 1616-17). Instead, ‘genre paintings’ are chosen that are akin to the ‘formal portraits’. Laughing Fisherboy tucks away his hands in his jacket just like a civic dignitary sitting for his portrait. Malle Babbe (1640), who was committed to the Haarlem workhouse, has an owl on her shoulder as a symbol of her foolishness, but is painted as loosely and attentively as the artist’s signature portraits of that time, an imperative to aliveness its most distinctive feature.
Most clearly, in Portrait of Pieter Cornelisz van der Mersch (1616), the clothing and pose are of a wealthy citizen, with the modifying detail of the held up kipper, and more fish in the basket of electric straw. ‘Who wants one?’ says the writing alongside him, implying our sitter is ready with a quick fire mocking rebuke, for the subject is a jester. The text makes explicit that proffering of a social contract which for all the sitters in this exhibition is their character or personality. Through drink, love, economic success, music and dancing, many find happiness in this society, but I cannot shake the feeling that others seem vacant, lost, and worried in the very cellular make up of their painted physiognomies.
The Regents do not have that last room to themselves. Here, too, is Portrait of an Unknown Man (about 1660). He might sneak into the well-dressed group with The Laughing Cavalier and Jasper Schade, particularly with his angled broad-rimmed hat, but it is brushwork rather than brocade that distinguishes his grey and white cloak, with each long stroke both fabric fold, its shadow, and painter’s bravado. The edge of Schade’s body gets constituted by a geological maelstrom of black marks and dabs that become pours and drips as Hals works into the bottom corner of the canvas, suggesting it was Frank Bowling not Van Dyck that came by to chat and paint.
Back to Regents of the Old Men’s Alms House: the commission controls such flourishes, with the exception of the aforementioned sleeves and gloves, but also a virulent shock of red for the stocking in the corner. An ‘unforgettable piece of painting’ writes Bart Cornelis in the catalogue, where Hals joins Titian and Rembrandt in finding a Late Style of unprecedented improvisatory freedom. True, but this red circle also throbs troublingly. Look into it for a while, the attached figure becomes clown-like, the red a wound severing the whole group’s root system. Like Envy over Massa’s shoulder I am surprised it did not get painted over by someone for whom its raw red was an equally undesired iconography.
Vincent Van Gogh loved Hals. In a letter to his brother Theo in 1885, he wrote that as a colourist he put Hals alongside Rubens, Veronese, Velázquez and Delacroix. Whilst such artists relied on familiar religious themes, Hals - Van Gogh scribbled to Emile Bernard three years later -was ‘portraits; nothing nothing nothing but that’. Portraits ‘worth as much as Dante’s Paradise and The Michelangelos and Raphaels and even the Greeks’.
Manet, Sargent and Whistler all shared this admiration, as did Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, who in 1865 bid six times the estimate at auction in Paris to secure The Laughing Cavalier for what became The Wallace Collection. Does Hals speak as eloquently now as in his nineteenth century vogue? Think poses for selfies, on Zoom, for LinkedIn profile pictures, of the world that shows in our faces and the bits of body and clothing accompanying them. What is our flute, tankard, quill, mackerel, jaw bone? What is the owl on our shoulder? What jester’s challenge do we make to everyone? What, clearly the truth of us, gets very quickly painted over?