Frans Hals - Conclusion
( Originally Published 1904 )
AS we have followed Frans Hals step by step along his career, it must often have seemed to the reader, as it has also to the writer, that one by one we were taking from him his claim to this gift or to that, until we have left him with few gifts worth having. And to some extent it is so, since to the true understanding of the man it has been necessary to set forth his limitations with just as much distinctness as his strength. And, indeed, if the reader has grasped the interpretation which I tried to make clear of Frans Hals' position in art, he will have realized the fact that it is the very existence of these limitations which makes that position. He was not the thinker that Rembrandt was. He had not his colour or his surface. He had not the grace and the charm of Van Dyck. He had not the grave and solemn dignity, or the mastery over the play of light and shade in colour that Velazquez had. He had not the exuberance of tint, or the sense of scenic splendour of Rubens. He lacked, as the list at the end of the last chapter will have shown us, many sympathies, or at least he laid them by ; he ignored many fields of thought, or at least he found no time to dally with them, and he put from him opportunities which many another artist would have de-lighted to use. He was one of the great artists of the world, not because he lacked all these things, but in spite of having lacked all these things. And that is much to say.
In the life and letters of Charles Darwin it is said-I forget whether he says it himself in his letters, or whether it is said for him—that as a young man he had possessed several tastes which wholly disappeared and were unrecovered by him as he became entirely absorbed in the one great and single pursuit of his life. He' said that his mind had become atrophied to these tastes, under the all-absorbing interests of his great search. And through this parallel I think we shall be able to interpret the like phenomenon in Frans Hals. In his early works are, here and there, clear indications of many gifts such as an artist might covet—gifts of refined and sensitive colour, of grave and dignified character-reading, of decorative sense —and these are all, as time goes on, atrophied, as it were, some in greater degree and some in less, that the one overmastering gift of the man may be developed to its fullest. He either leaves them on one side, or else takes them along with him as unnoticed followers in his progress.
I do not say that Hals did this consciously, or of a set purpose known to himself and recognized as such. All that I say is that he did it. I do not say that there was any heroic sense of self-sacrifice on his part, whereby he wittingly set aside all that might have led to popularity for the sake of some great principle in Art. All that I say is that the sacrifice was made. Probably-one may perhaps even say certainly—Hals was not a man of universally comprehensive grasp, even if his life had been laid out, as we know it was not, to the fullest profit in all its hours. The strength of such a man often develops its best along its lines of least resistance. And a certain narrowness of aim, as we sometimes rate it, has given to the man his true greatness after all, which he would have missed if he had dissipated himself abroad in search of this quality and of that which was not native to him—which was not his true soul as he was to face it. As it is, we have in him a mighty artist, perhaps the mightiest of all in his single line, certainly the most robust, and it is as ungrateful as it is futile to complain because, in other lines, there are mightier than he.
Essentially, therefore, it will be said, a man of limitations. True, or truer still, to say that he was a man who has given far less than perhaps he had to give. In that indifference of his to what everybody else might think, or see, o r want from him in his pictures, we see at once that wilful side of the artistic temperament which is so often associated with genius, and the reason why he has offered us in the upshot less than he had in him to offer. It is not exactly scorn, this indifference of his-it is too indifferent, too natural, too unconscious to be scorn. He simply does not heed. He is carried forward by his own artistic impulse to his own artistic end. If your artistic aim and impulse be different, what matter to him? He is, therefore, always himself, spontaneous, natural, unconscious. I have heard exactly the opposite view of him maintained by artists who have seen in him one who was ever ready to display his superb technique, and to flourish it before the eyes of the onlooker to his amazement and admiration. For myself I can but say that I have wholly failed to find any evidence of this. Hals does not attitudinize before an audience. He does not play a part; he is simply himself throughout the whole piece, unconscious that there is any audience or any other actor.
We have used the word Genius in connection with Frans Hals, and this forces us to ask, Was Frans Hals a Genius? If we set him beside some of those colossi whom by common consent we recognize as Geniuses—Michelangelo, for example, or Shakespeare—we may think that his one great gift compares poorly with their many. But let it be remembered, that there is more than one kind of Genius. There is the many-sided Genius, comprehensive, all-embracing, such as the Michelangelo aforesaid; but there is also the one-line Genius, such as, for example, Nelson, who was indeed a Genius, if ever there was one, in his single department, but certainly in no other. And Hals was a Genius of this latter type—that is to say, if we admit that one of the marks by which we may discern Genius from Excellence lies in the fact that we can recognize—and genius can only be gauged instinctively, never by set definition-in its works an in-definable something which cannot be attained to by any amount of perseverance, or industry, or cultivation of gifts, no matter how good or worth having; nor by love, refinement, strength; nor by any of the qualities which go to make great painters, and yet do not constitute Genius. For Genius, though it is helped by all of these, and cannot do without them if it is to reach its greatest and give us of its greatest, yet is a something apart from, beyond, and in a sense above all these. It is always of the nature of an inspiration. It can be even seen and felt where it lacks, often sadly lacks, those other great supports.
Now if we apply this test to Frans Hals, we shall find him answer to it. There is in him always that same indefinable something which lifts him, even in his least pleasing and least worthy efforts, outside the region of the most excellent of whom excellence alone can be predicated. There were in Holland in the days of the great Dutch School scores of men who painted a portrait excellently, with the soundest and most skilful technique, showing many qualities which had been brought to the highest point-in a word, good and even first-rate men. But set their portraits beside one of Hals', and we shall see at once that Hals has indeed that aforesaid indefinable something—no man can say where it begins or where it ends, or of what it exactly consists—which claims for the Great Master of Haarlem, for the poor occupant of the grave in St. Bavon, the title of a Genius.