Frans Hals


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(b Antwerp, 1582/3; d Haarlem, 29 Aug. 1666).

Dutch painter. He was Flemish by birth; his parents left Antwerp after the city was captured by the Spaniards in 1585 and moved to Holland. They had settled in Haarlem by 1591 and Hals spent the rest of his long life there. He was twice married, had at least ten children, and was constantly in financial trouble. Houbraken says he was ‘filled to the gills every evening’, but there is no real foundation for the popular image of him as a drunken wife-beater. His second wife, however, was more than once in trouble for brawling. During his last years he was destitute and the municipal authorities of Haarlem awarded him a small annual stipend four years before his death.

Hals was the first great artist of the 17th-century Dutch School and is regarded as one of the most brilliant of all portraitists. Almost all his works are portraits and even those that are not (some genre scenes, and an occasional religious picture) are portrait-like in character. He is said to have been taught in Haarlem by Karel van Mander, but there is no discernible influence from him in Hals's early works, which are not numerous or well documented. The earliest dated picture associated with him is Jacobus Zaffius (1611, Hals Mus., Haarlem; perhaps a copy), and on stylistic evidence a few other paintings can be dated around the same time. Nothing he did before 1616 anticipated the way he shattered well-established traditions that year with his life-size group portrait of the Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company (Hals Mus.). There is no real precedent in either his own work or that of his predecessors for the vigorous composition and characterization of this picture, which has become a symbol of the strength and healthy optimism of the men who established the new Dutch Republic. It demonstrates to the full his remarkable ability—his greatest gift as a portraitist—to capture a sense of fleeting movement and expression and thereby convey a compelling feeling of life.

From 1616 onwards there are numerous dated or documented works by Hals and his artistic development is clear. He was at the height of his popularity in the 1620s and 1630s. During these decades he made five large group portraits of civic guards: one (finished by Pieter Codde) is in the Rijksmuseum and the others are in the museum named after Hals in Haarlem, the only place where one can get a comprehensive view of his range and power. In the 1630s his compositions became simpler and monochromatic effects took the place of the bright colours of the earlier paintings (Lucas de Clercq and Feyntje van Steenkiste, 1635, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). The group portrait of the Regents of the St Elizabeth Hospital (1641, Hals Mus.) sets the key for the sober restraint of the late period, when his pictures became darker and his brushstrokes more economical. His career culminated in his group portraits of the Regents and the Regentesses of the Old Men's Alms House (c.1664, Hals Mus.), which rank among the most moving portraits ever painted. By this time Hals was using in his commissioned portraits the bold brushwork and the alla prima technique that early in his career he reserved for genre pictures. No drawings by him are known and he presumably worked straight on to the canvas.


Subjects: Art.

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