Frans Hals - Maria Voogt, 1639, In The Rijks Museum, Amsterdam
( Originally Published 1904 )
IN dealing with the 1641 Regenten picture at Haarlem we have already mentioned the generally accepted view that during a certain period of his career, which is roughly included between the years 1635 and 1643, Hals was visibly influenced by Rembrandt. This influence, it is claimed, is to be seen in several works painted within that period—notably this portrait (1639), the head of an old Lady in the Bridgewater Collection (1640), and the aforesaid Regents of St. Elizabeth's Poorhouse, and two companion portraits at Frankfort. I cannot speak positively to any others which have been directly quoted in evidence of the theory that Hals painted for a time under the influence of Rembrandt.
It is a bold thing to contest a view which has been supported by such weighty critics as Dr. Bode and others of scarcely less authority, and the reader will assuredly not be ready to take my single opinion against such a formidable opposition without putting it, through his own eyes, to as severe a test as I have done myself. But I am compelled to say, at the risk of repeating myself, that in spite of vague and undefined connection of thought which, while you are looking at the one man, often sets you thinking about the other, I am unable to find evidence which does not give way under careful analysis. The comparatively warmer tone which, during some years of his practice, came over the daylight of Hals, may indeed be due to some inspiration from the warmer master, but it is surely not pronounced enough to need to be accounted for by such an explanation. I have in another chapter endeavoured to show that it can be accounted for by the ordinary development of Frans Hals' colour vision. It amounts at most, however (save in that one case), to an increase in the warmth of his tones, and to a more suffused rendering of his shades—to be explained, I venture to think, by the growth of his sense of atmosphere. Direct comparison, at close quarters, with any work of Rembrandt is apt to dispel the belief in the connection, which, when we view them apart and at a distance, is certainly apt to assert itself.
When we come to the superb portrait of Maria Voogt, who is also sometimes called Madame Van der Meer, in the Van der Hoop Collection in the Rijks Museum at Amsterdam, we are, it is true, set thinking of Rembrandt. It is exactly the same type of old Dutch lady which Rembrandt loved to paint. She wears the same costume, naturally enough, as Rembrandt's old ladies in the same station of life, and she sits in the same simple and quiet pose. But these are traits common to both men, which neither has derived from the other. It is warmer in its shadows and its half-tones, and has more gold in its lights than is usual with Hals. Perhaps it has. But walk two rooms off and look at Rembrandt's portrait of Elizabeth Jacobs Bas, the widow of Admiral Swartenhout. You will see at once that Hals' picture is in cool daylight compared with the artificial golden light with which Rembrandt's picture is suffused. If the two pictures could be hung side by side, what one would at once notice would be that all the apparent similarity has vanished, and the points of difference seemed multiplied. The experiment would, in one way, be eminently unfair to Hals. The golden, light of the Rembrandt would make the quiet and true. I must claim to be allowed to say truer, though less fascinating daylight of Hals look very cold indeed. He would suffer misjudgement at the hands of all save the most cool-headed and judicial of critics.
The face is a quiet, shrewd, penetrating face, with more refinement than most Dutch women of the day possessed. She was built in a less masterful mould of mind and body, for instance, than the kindly, solid, hard-bitten admiral's wife. Hals has given one here the inner life of his sitter—that which at times one is tempted to declare he cannot give : and that inner life, one may safely say, one which was hardly akin to his own. That brown, Dutch-bound, silver-clasped Bible there has got itself well into the life of the clear-eyed old dame. It is no hypocrisy—you may swear it from her face—that made her choose to be painted so.
As we have said, she is cast in a less stern and also in a less sturdy mould than the grand old Dutchwoman whom Rembrandt painted. She did less of the house-work with her own hands—look at them and see—than Dame Elizabeth Bas. As one looks at the admiral's wife, one feels the conviction that, whatever happened at sea, it was she who commanded the ship at home. There is strength in every line of the shrewd, homely face, and in the quiet ease of the strong hands which lie folded upon one another. The hands of Hals' portrait are fully as expressive of character, but the character is different. There is quiet, firm decision in them, but they do not belong to a personality of the same rugged and robust strength as the other house-wife. Yet I take it that she knew her own mind as well in her quiet decided way, and that there was little that was contrary to sound order in the Haarlem home of the Van der Meers.
The face is painted with the simple directness which always marks him. Very noticeable, indeed, is the manner in which he has dealt with the shadow at the side of the forehead. It is laid on in flat mass—almost blocked in, after the practice followed in laying in in modern French studio work—and it is joined to the higher flesh tones apparently by no subtle modulations or passages of half-tone, as Velazquez would have done it, nor yet is it blurred and softened, as Rembrandt would have given it, but it seems at first sight almost to have a straight edge to it, so firm, definite, and decided is it. And yet there is here given to us by this simple and direct means all the transparency and the modelling of the concave shadow at the side of the forehead. The same direct simplicity and oneness of handling are visible everywhere in the face. He has seen it all once for all and set it down once for all, the modelling being everywhere obtained by overlappings of colour laid on some-what liquid in masses. I do not mean by this to imply, as it might be construed that Hals' surface is painty. It is so far otherwise that the thing seems to have come of itself, and the manner of its doing does not enforce itself upon you. When you compel yourself to try to find out how it is all achieved, you discover the absolute simplicity of the means employed. The magic of the thing lay in the " knowing how."
I have already spoken of the painting of the hands from the point of view of the rendering of character. It is interesting to regard them also from the point of view of mere technique. It will be doubly interesting to compare them with Rembrandt's hands in the Elizabeth Bas close by. How absolutely different the means by which the two men obtain their results, and how absolutely right each man is in his own method! Hals gets his hands, in all his portraits, by direct sweeps of the brush, full of very liquid colour, following down the lines of the bones, and obtaining the articulations of the joints with almost imperceptible changes of colour in the onward passage. There is very little loading of paint or dragging across the lines of the anatomy, except here and there to give the modelling of the back of the hand or of the muscle between the first finger and the thumb. It is interesting, by the way, to notice an often employed device of Hals, by which he makes the round parts of the hand, seen against a dress, go round, as it were, instead of presenting a solid flat edge against the dark. It will be found that he draws a film of very thin colour beyond the edge of the hand in places, through which the colour of the dress or other background shines. Now seen close, this sort of film, or blurred second outline, seems to have no meaning or to be even the result of careless haste. The restorer usually removes it, one may observe, as his first duty to his author; but retire a pace or two and you find that you have got, in mysterious fashion, the sense of the soft flesh going round, as it does in nature, towards the dress. And all this apparently shapeless and incoherent set of sweeps and patches becomes, at the proper distance, a living human hand, and moreover the living human hand of the person to whom it belongs, and as full of character as the face itself.
I have already spoken of the consummate skill with which in the Van der Meer portrait Hals has painted the book, and indeed every accessory of this masterpiece. This book, indeed, is so matchless a piece of still-life painting, that it would be open to the charge of being too interesting in itself, and too little of an accessory, if it were not kept entirely in its place by the interest of the face itself. One does not turn to think of such a detail till one has taken in the true purpose of the picture first. When one does so, it is to become aware once more that Hals has answered the challenge that any still-life painter of them all might issue.
Indeed, if Hals were called upon to choose one single work of his wherewith to take his stand against all comers, he might well select his portrait of the lady of the house of Van der Meer, which he painted in 1639, at the age of fifty-nine—the halfway date, as we have consented to consider it, in his artistic career.