The National Gallery, London, until January 21, then the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
Curated at the National Galley by Bart Cornelis, curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings.
Frans Hals (1582-1666) painted portraits, “nothing, nothing, nothing but that,” wrote van Gogh to fellow painter Emile Bernard, but that they were “worth Dante’s Paradise and the Michelangelos and Raphaels and even the Greeks”.
The bold claim, explored by the first major retrospective in more than three decades, has truth in that Hals’ vivid, life-like portraits powerfully convey the worldliness of the society in which he lived when Dutch trade created a wealthy bourgeoisie reliant on bravura painting to cement its social status and confident enjoyment of life.
Depending on your predilections, the immediacy of the amoral joie de vivre is a tonic for our times when guilt and anxiety tend to preclude any celebration of social status. Whatever your taste, Hals’ talent is undeniable.
The joy derives from a willingness, which marks him out from his contemporaries, to take on the challenge of painting smiles and even laughter. He also created a sense of spontaneity by daringly working “alla prima”, or without preliminary drawings, and combining deft attention to detail with sweeping brush strokes.
His most famous portrait “The Laughing Cavalier” smiles, rather than laughs. Along with Hals’ other work, it fell from favour until French critic Theophile Thoré rediscovered prominent Dutch artists who also included Vermeer. Its fame was confirmed in 1865 when the 4th Marquess of Hertford bought it at auction.
At the National Gallery, we can for the first time assess it in the context of fifty of Hals’ works rather than in splendid isolation at The Wallace Collection, which is lending it out for the first time after a reassessment of the terms of the will of Lady Wallace, widow of Richard Wallace, probably the Marquess of Hertford’s illegitimate son.
Little is known of the sitter. The exhibition notes suggest he was a bachelor given the fashionable flamboyancy of his clothes. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says this could have been an engagement portrait as the brilliantly conveyed fabric of his doublet is adorned with flaming torches, arrows, hearts, and other symbols of love. It also draws attention to the exquisitely fine lace of his cuffs.
For all the zest for secular life, momento mori feature in some of Hals’ work. His depiction of faces outshines his portrayal of skulls in for instance the “Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull” and this time there are no smiles or laughter. Instead, we ponder a future when the rich fabrics of the sitter, not to mention his skin, will have rotted away.
Hals also recalls his predecessors in his reference to proverbs and quaint idiom worthy of Brueghel. Pieter Cornelisz van der Morsch is portrayed holding a kipper taken from a highly convincing basket of straw. To give someone a kipper in the parlance of the day had the significance of handing out a sharp rebuke. The painting has been interpreted, therefore, as a reference to van der Morch’s readiness to ridicule people.
In a similar vein, a wild-looking Pieter Verdonck brandishes a jawbone, suggestive of the verbal blows he could deliver complete with a glitter in his eyes. Verdonck, some critics speculate, was a friend of Hals, but life-like as he is, the picture verges on the tronie, a Dutch Golden Age genre that depicts an exaggerated facial expression.
The same is true of “The Gypsy Girl,” or “La Bohemienne”, with a deep décolleté and “come hither” eyes. The notes tell us, the picture could have been intended for a brothel where clients could select a woman from her portrait.
Hals does not judge. He does not satirise. As the son of a cloth merchant, he was born into the rising classes, but as a painter, he serves them and gives equal attention to the highest and the lowest, men and women alike.
The Gypsy Girl’s relative undress is in complete contrast to the immaculately clad women in Hals’ husband and wife pendant portraits, which have become separated and are reunited in this exhibition.
Pieter Dircksz Tjarck once again dangles a rose beside his wife Marie Larp. While he is nonchalant, she is upright and formal, but clutching her breast with a steadfast glance.
Dutch brewer Michiel de Wael, one hand on his hip, the other dangling a glove, is beside Cunera van Baersdorp, who mirrors his pose, but more forcefully. One senses she has the upper hand.
An intimate “Up Close” section of the exhibition displays much smaller works.
Here the portrait of Willem van Heythuysen, another cloth merchant, is remarkable in that it depicts him leaning back in his chair and balancing on two of its legs while brandishing a whip, apparently ready to deliver a lash.
Previously, Hals painted him standing and posing with a suggestive rapier that would be as aggressive were it not softened by roses at his feet, the deep pink of the cloth canopy behind him and a glimpsed romantic couple in a neoclassical background. It may have been a betrothal portrait, though he never married his intended.
Hals outlived them both, painting on into his eighties.
Portrait of a Man in a Slouch Hat is an instance of Hals’ style at its freest and most assured, prompting comparisons with impressionism.
It’s not the self-portrait I found myself craving, but the relaxed, slightly dishevelled figure with his arm casually slung over the back of a chair is self-expressive.
As we know, van Gogh, the post-, rather than pre-impressionist, who knew exactly how much skill was entailed, was suitably impressed.
Barbara Lewis © 2023.