Here in lies an appreciation and admiration for Frans Hals that does not necessarily derive from an understanding of his life and times but rather astounds 21st century art appreciation. Hals is today considered to be the progenitor of impressionist painting and may be ranked more closely than in earlier times with Rembrandt and Vermeer. His only relationship with such brilliant masters had been that in their old age they became dependent upon the state and charity for survival. But today Hals has joined these geniuses of the Dutch Baroque. His celebrated brushwork is at times slapdash but always fantastically descriptive. His portraits never fail to describe the boisterous joy of the sitters’ lives and the facile recording of Hals celebration of it. You can absolutely join the painter and his subjects in their celebrations of their lives.

Hals left no written account of his life and work but the paintings are descriptive of his life well lived. Working in the traditional Dutch technique of painting first dark and finishing light he nevertheless improved on it by eliminating any preparatory drawings or underpainting. (The Italian technique was the reverse of the Dutch and was painted from white to dark a complete reversal of the technique.) While there is no certain evidence of his method he seems to have started directly on the canvas and painted quickly, leaving his first spontaneous expression, which is almost an oil sketch as the finished work. The technique gives a striking immediacy to his portrayals of character. He literally drew with paint and showed future generations of painters how candid technique could serve the direct registration of people and things as they really appear; this is art like an adept performance, in a surprising kind of present tense but done in the 17th century. At the time of its execution it was known as ‘the rough style”, and Has produced dazzling group portraits of local militias as well as individual portraits that delighted his subjects because it displayed their zest for life and robust self regard.

There have been early biographers of Hals who depicted him as a wild high living heavy drinker, because of these suggestive paintings. However it should be noted that there were 21 brewers of the 24 members of the City Council so it is certainly obvious that these men were or had been painted by Hals. The brewers profession was highly honored and the beer was low in alcohol content and probably a lot safer to drink than the water in the Golden Age. Many of the men in the paintings are shown with glasses in hand imbibing the golden liquid. One portrait depicts a happy hero raising a glass while being attended with fawning approval by a prostitute, a dog and the innkeeper and according to a witticism of the time which states that the three figures are those whose affections come at a cost. The newly rich bourgeoisie were immortalized by Hals as delightful robust fun loving people, and the line formed around his studio for middle class patrons seeking Hals portraits of themselves. Even when he painted the poorer citizens of their society he would show pretty children who were happy in Haarlem. There was a sense of life, a spontaneous joie de vivre. He was able to bring about relationships between the figures that increased their self importance.

Hals outlived his success. At the end of his life he was out of fashion and impoverished. Hals was of his time to a fault but he could not portray the deep thoughts of his sitters’ souls as Rembrandt did nor the everyday lifestyle of Vermeer’s portraits. And yet strangely enough at the ends of their lives all three painters suffered the indignity of seeing their possessions sold at auction for debt. He was unable to receive public assistance until 8 years later. Despite his adversities he produced some of the greatest portraits in the last 16 years of his life. His paintings, no longer tempered by laughter seem to express an understanding that simply being is enough for life after a certain age. What he could do was to portray a lace collar or cuffs with a minimum of slashes of white paint. He could perform tricks with his brush that no other old master might do. But no other old master seems to have made art so little for their own fulfillment. He gave the people of his time great pleasure in seeing themselves in poses that exalted and individualized the sitters. His style was unique in his own time, but it simply fell out of favor. Then his artistry was ignored; he was considered a competent but limited painter whose only subject was portraits of self important Dutch patrons. He was denied a place in history until the 19th century when interest in his work was discovered by artists like Manet and Van Gogh. In modern times he is finally reconsidered for his ability to create realist painting with abstract dashes of color. A trip to see Hals work has become a necessary consideration in the study of art history. And to be honest, it is great fun to enjoy life with Hals subjects, the happy extroverted citizens of Haarlem.



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