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FRANS HALS

STYLE AND SUBSTANCE

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By Walter Liedtke

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The Montréal Review, September 2011

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 "Frans Hals: Style and Substance" by Walter Liedtke (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011)

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As the Metropolitan Museum's curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings for the past thirty-one years I know the collection's 230 Dutch pictures (those dating ca. 1600-1800) as well as I would if they were hanging in my own house. It came as no surprise, then, when the Museum suggested that I make our superb paintings by Frans Hals (1582/83-1666), and the artist's life, subjects, style, and reputation through the ages, the subject of a Metropolitan Museum Bulletin, which in addition to being sent to our 120,000 members is also sold as a trade edition distributed by Yale University Press. It was my own idea to schedule an exhibition of "Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum" (July 25-October 10, 2011) to coincide with the publication, adding to our eleven Halses and two seventeenth-century paintings once attributed to him two great works by Hals from New York private collections, and a dozen pictures by other masters of Hals's time (seven from the Met and five from private collections). However, the publication is not a "catalogue" of the exhibition, but an independent essay illustrated by fifty exceptionally fine color photographs of works by Hals; by masters he admired, such as Rubens and Van Dyck; and by a few of his nineteenth-century emulators, such as Manet.

Frans Hals (Dutch, Antwerp 1582/83-1666 Haarlem) Young Man and Woman in an Inn ("Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart"), 1623, Oil on Canvas, 41 1/2 x 31 in. (105.4 x 79.4 cm): The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913, Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For well over a century Hals has been considered one of the three most important Dutch painters of the "Golden Age," together with the considerably younger Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and the much younger Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). In the second half of the nineteenth century, Hals was actually the most celebrated artist in some quarters - especially in Paris, since Vermeer's small oeuvre was still only beginning to be defined, and Hals's bourgeois subjects, his often colorful palette, and above all his bold brushwork became more inspiring to Realist and Impressionist painters than was the venerable model of Rembrandt. Prices for pictures by Hals soared on the European art market from the 1860s onward, and major American collectors such as the Metropolitan Museum's great benefactors, Henry Marquand, Benjamin Altman, and Henry and Louisine Havemeyer (best known for their Impressionist pictures) followed British and Continental collectors in regarding works by Hals as among the old master paintings one ought to have (significantly, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velázquez, and Goya - all masters of the brush - stood out among the others). Contemporary art critics and painters were the most enthusiastic advocates of Hals, none more so than Vincent van Gogh. But the most influential voices were those of Courbet, Manet, Monet, and American artists such as Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and William Merritt Chase.

The formative decades of the Metropolitan Museum (which was founded in 1870) coincided closely with the rise of Hals's reputation, with the result that the eleven autograph works in its collection form an ensemble second only to that of the Frans Hals Museum in the artist's own city of Haarlem. The collection in New York is actually more representative of the painter's work as a whole, except for his large group portraits of civic guard companies and the regents of charitable institutions. These organizations were in effect divisions of the city government and when they became defunct - the local militias, or "civic guards," almost never took up arms - or were replaced by other agencies (mostly in the 1700s) their paintings became city property. The Night Watch by Rembrandt, for example, is not owned by the Rijksmuseum but since 1808 has been on loan to that great museum from the city of Amsterdam. Thus the eight large group portraits by Hals in Haarlem and the one in Amsterdam never could have appeared on the art market. The painter's vivacious genre pictures and portraits, by contrast, have been so spread around the world that works by him are underrepresented in Dutch museums. The four genre pictures by Hals in the Met's collection, two of them famous, may be compared with the one (The Jolly Toper) in the Rijksmuseum and with none in Haarlem.

Frans Hals (Dutch, Antwerp 1582/83-1666 Haarlem), Portrait of a Man, early 1650s, Oil on canvas, 43 1/2 x 34 in. (131.4 x 99.7 cm): The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1890, Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The last worthwhile publication on Hals was the 1989 catalogue (by Seymour Slive et al.) of the monographic exhibition seen in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (followed by stops in London and Haarlem). In that large volume there was hardly a word on the master's style, apart from simple appreciation. This approach goes back to the nineteenth-century critics and painters who saw Hals (and themselves) as rejecting "academic" training in favor of direct observation. For at least the first half of the twentieth century the same simplistic notion was supported by Dutch scholars who in a nationalistic spirit saw their old masters as independent of great foreign artists such as Rubens and Caravaggio.

My essay on Hals's "style and substance," by contrast, stresses his learning of compositional schemes and the advantages of broad brushwork from various sources, in particular from Rubens and his followers Jacob Jordaens and the young Anthony van Dyck. Hals went to the great art center of Antwerp for three months in 1616, evidently for no other reason than to study works by Rubens and the latest ideas in European art. The Met's Merrymakers by Shrovetide, of about 1616-17, is the most Flemish-looking Dutch picture I know of dating from before the 1630s, in its brilliant colors, open brushwork, and dramatic movement swirling over the surface. Hals had some idea of the modern "rough" manner from his teacher, Karel van Mander, who in his Schilder-Boeck of 1603-4 praised Titian for his broad and complicated technique. "Rough" brushwork was a buzzword in progessive studios, as a way of going beyond what was seen as the "frozen" movement and light of Caravaggio, in order to more convincingly suggest the flow of daylight and atmosphere over and all around forms in space.

Frans Hals (Dutch, Antwerp 1582/83-1666 Haarlem), Merrymakers at Shrovetide, ca. 1616-17, Oil on Canvas, 51 3/4 x 39 1/4 in. (131.4 x 99.7 cm): The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913, Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In addition to discussing the sources of Hals's stylistic literacy my essay insists on the carefulness of his modeling and his patient execution. A persistent myth about Hals, going back to his biographer Arnold Houbraken in 1718 and beloved in the late nineteenth century, is that Hals painted pictures rapidly, as if engaged in swordplay like the Three Musketeers. Painting conservators and serious critics have no use for this idea. Hals's visible layers and final touches of paint were applied on top of differently colored areas of underpainting, which anticipate surface tonalities and optical effects. His brushwork not only suggests the play of light, atmosphere, and motion, but at the same time works to suggest volume and sculptural effects (a face by Hals is easy to imagine reproduced in clay). Most of his contemporary followers and especially his nineteenth-century imitators try to capture Hals's surface effects and do not see his persuasive suggestions of form and space, and also of different fabrics, flesh, and hair. The word "substance" in the title of my essay refers to this physical quality, and also to Hals's exceptional ability to suggest individual character - a person's substance in a double sense.

Frans Hals (Dutch, Antwerp 1582/83-1666 Haarlem), Portrait of a Man, possibly Nicolaes Pietersz Duyst van Voorhout, ca. 1636-38, Oil on canvas, 31 ¾ x 26 in. (80.6 x 66 cm): The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Jules Bache Collection, 1949, Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are modern critics who want Hals to be something else; to choose different subjects, perhaps thereby to display his increasingly (through fifty years of work) virtuoso technique. But Hals did not live in the age of such admirers as Courbet and Manet, who could present novel artistic ideas in public exhibitions. Hals painted portraits on commission and for the open market, in the 1620s and 1630s only, genre pictures - witty commentaries on modern life. Most of his middle-class clients were new to collecting, unlike the sophisticated patrons of painters such as Rubens and Caravaggio. What they saw in his pictures and what they really wanted was not so much art for their walls but "life itself," as Dutch critics of the time described Hals's achievement.

"Frans Hals est un moderne," declared the editors of the forward-looking Belgian journal L'art moderne, in 1883. This is untrue: Hals was at home in Haarlem during the 1600s. But it is true all the same.

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Walter Liedtke is curator of European paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is the author of Vermeer and the Delft School as well as many other books on Dutch and Flemish art.

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