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Master Artist Frans Hal
( Article orginally published May 1944 )
The scene is set in Haarlem. Netherlands, some three centuries ago, in the 1630's. A much-traveled, distinguished-looking gentleman makes his way to the studio of Frans Hals, spurred on by an inherent desire to learn about his contemporaries and a certain professional curiosity. His searching glance falls upon a simple cottage, which answers the description given him by the villagers, and as he approaches, the fluttering sound of a bevy of children from within greets his ears. A loud knock brings Harynen, the eldest, to the door.
"Is Master Hals at home?"
"Would you fetch him immediately? I'd like my portrait painted and I've but two hours to sit."
The young lad ushers the stranger into the house, eyes his sister Sara to entertain the gentleman and goes off to the hunt. The prosperous invader causes quite a stir among the children. He is painfully aware of the contrast he creates in this sad setting, and 'somewhat relieved when the staggering figure of Hals makes its noisy entrance.
With businesslike air, Hals gropes for a fresh canvas, takes up palette and brush, and in a few deft strokes captures the likeness of the sitter.
The sitter walks up to the canvas, examines it, and says: "The art of painting seems quite an easy matter. Do you mind if I try my hand at it?" Whereupon they change places.
Through his hazy, tiny eyes, Hals soon recognizes the expert movements of an accomplished artist and his suspicion is quite confirmed as he gets up to look at the beginnings of a masterly portrait.
"Why . . . you must be Van Dyck, for who else could do what you have done?" and he embraces him with "drunken familiarity".
This anecdote, recounted by Reynolds in his "Stories of the Flemish and Dutch Masters", whether authentic or not, gives us, at any rate, an inkling of Hals, the man and the artist.
The best-known studies on Frans Hals in Dutch, English, German and French are of the early 20th century. They seem to have blossomed out of the renewed interest in the once forgotten Dutch master. For a century after his death, in 1666, the name of Frans Hals and the works of his brush were far from uppermost in men's minds. At the end of the 18th century, art lovers began to dig him up from the dust of oblivion. Lord Bvron was one of these. But the process was slow. At first Hals originals were bought for ridiculously low sums. In the 19th century, the ciphers started augmenting, the master of laughter looked extremely well over the living-room fireplace, lie was much sought after. In our own century he was interesting matter for biographical study, for his portraits now fetched the hundreds of thousands.
An artist who has been endowed with the privilege of posthumous recognition through his works alone, and who has been denied the privilege of a contemporary Boswell, is perforce at the mercy of the mute recordings found in civil documents. The widest, most diversified opinions grow from the reading and interpretation of these documents by the undertakers of biographical studies.
Scanning the table of sangfroid facts in the case of our subject, we weed out all but the following salient events. Born in Antwerp about 1585. Transferred to Haarlem, and married at the age of 23, in 1608. First wife dies. A year later Hals remarries, in 1617. Nine days later Sara is born. At the age of 25 Sara is committed to the workhouse, or prison; only five years before that, "innocent" or feeble minded Pieter had been committed there. In all, ten children are born to the Hals. At the age of 59, the painter is elected to the Board of Officers of the Guild. The rest is quite sad: constant debts for food, lawsuits for necessities. The baker attaches Hals' property to cover a long-standing bill, and that property consists of three mattresses and bolsters, an armoire, a table, and five pictures! In 1662 Frans Hals applies to the Community for relief and two years later is granted an annuity. Death brought kindness to this brokendown being: for he was laid to rest in the choir of the Groote Kerk in Haarlem an honor granted to the choicest few. Whereupon biographers have drawn conclusions: loose morals, weak character (and, from the scores of pictures portraying tavern frequenteurs), a slave to alcohol. One may read between the lines as one sees fit.
The finest, most recent and complete collection of reproductions of Frans Hals paintings has been compiled by N.S. Trivas, Phaidon Press. There are catalogued over one hundred paintings found in museums and private collections from Leningrad to London, in Canada and the 'United States. Each painting has its history and literature noted, not omitting the copies, some "fakes", and their history.
Hals is first and foremost associated with the "Laughing Cavalier" (Wallace Collection, London), who started out in life as a simple "Portrait of an Officer". But that ironic smile and laughing mustache have earned for him the indelible title.
Capturing laughter in all its phases from the ironic smile of the officer to the toothy grin of a "Laughing Fisher Boy"This was one of Hals' outstanding gifts. Hals' faces usually throb with life and seem virtually to pulsate under the heat of activity and perspiration. Skilful use of red against white achieves this effect.
Oftentimes Hals spares his colors to an odd degree. The "Fisher Boy" and other portraits that fall under the same category, may have been painted when Hals was "in the red" and out of most other colors. The boy's feather or fur cap and part of his dress are pale blue, the sky paler. Tan, brown and muddy green and white complete the color scheme. This almost monochromatic group of pictures may even have been done in low moody periods. Or we may further conjecture that the artist felt the need to suggest colors and not exaggerate them in his portrayal of characters of the lower strata of society.
In his more luxurious moods, however, Hals resorted to greys and blacks sharply accentuating a few bright spots in costume and flesh tones, as Willem Van Heythuysen struck a Van Dyck pose, yet could never be mistaken for what he is not. There is missing that nobility of character, the rich mellowness of colors carefully blended into each other, that fastidiousness of technique. For, as Hals suggested colors, he cleverly suggested form with abbreviated strokes, leaving the rest to the imagination of the onlooker.
Upon close inspection of any of his portraits, this "shorthand" method is quite noticeable in the treatment of highlights, features, hands (gloved or not), and lace cuffs and ruffs.
This all leads us to believe him to have been a quick worker, a master at the brush stroke. Upon once achieving the desired effect, he seldom went back to smooth off the rough edges.