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Frans Hals at the Metropolitan Museum, New York | reviews, news & interviews

Frans Hals at the Metropolitan Museum, New York

Frans Hals at the Metropolitan Museum, New York

The fairest and most insightful of portraitists in a magnificent display

If one comes away with any certainty from the New York exhibition Frans Hals at the Metropolitan Museum (until 10 October) it is that the Golden Age Dutch master (1582/3-1666) keenly understood and sympathised with his fellow human beings. Whether Hals (beloved of Courbet, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Whistler and Sargent) was painting drunks and prostitutes in tavern scenes, humble fisher folk, or burghers and intellectuals and their wives, he unerringly captured the essence of his sitters. There is little sentimentalisation or disparagement in his work.

Painting from nature, he told the truth as he saw it. If a subject has a trace of pride, fecklessness or overweening gravitas, Hals allows it, but his generosity invariably shines through. Above all, he is fair.

Hals was not an anthropologist or much of a social commentator, but there is extraordinary psychological acuity in the work - he is, perhaps, the most insightful of all portraitists, more so than his revered countryman Van Dyck. His shrewdness is commensurate with the face of the avuncular-looking man with kindly eyes and a prominent beak who painted himself into The Officers and Sub-Alterns of the Saint George Civic Guard (1639, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem). He had served with different branches of this militia from 1612 to 1624 at the time he was establishing himself as a painter in Haarlem; and from 1616 to 1625 he was associated with an amateur dramatic society, the Vine Tendrils.


Having studied with the Haarlem painter Karel van Mander (whose championing of mannerism influenced Hendrick Goltzius and Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem) before 1603, Hals was entered as a master in the local painters’ guild at the late age of 27 or 28 in 1610. Little is known about his life or work before this, except that his mother and father, a clothmaker, left Antwerp, in Flanders, where Frans had been born, for the northern Netherlands in 1586. His brother Dirck was baptised a Protestant there in 1591; Dirck was a painter of small-scale works, but Merry Companies, also in the exhibition, demonstrates that he hadn’t an iota of his brother’s depth and flair.

The Met owns 11 signed paintings by Hals (pronounced “Hahlce”) and one painting, of a drunken madwoman at the asylum where one of his sons was an inmate, that was once thought to be by him but is now known to be by Frans Jr (see gallery at the end). For this exhibition, it has borrowed two other works, the pleasingly rough The Fisher Girl (c 1630-32, see below) and an exquisite oil-on-copper miniature portrait of Haarlem historian, cleric and poet Samuel Ampzing (1630).

02 Hals Merrymakers at Shrovetide MMAThe 13 paintings have been split between two rooms, with a third room containing the work of pupils and followers (five of Hals’s sons from his 13 children from his two marriages became artists), as well as a double-portrait by Rubens that shows his influence on his younger contemporary. Hals was known to have visited Antwerp in 1616 and there are signs in his early work that he was influenced by seeing Rubens’s flamboyant Baroque paintings on that trip.

The first Hals room, devoted to his early genre paintings, is dominated by two large canvases, Merrymakers at Shrovetide (c 1616) and Young Man and Woman in an Inn (1623, aka Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart; a “Yonker” was a young nobleman). The former (pictured left), painted in an early Baroque style with Hals’s typically bold and vivid brushstrokes, depicts a Mardi Gras celebration on the eve of Lent.

Two men from the comic stage, the ruddy Pekelharing (Pickled Herring), who stares blearily at the painter, and the sly and saturnine Hans Worst (John Sausage), are each trying to woo a thick-necked, flaxen-haired youngster attired in the fabulously embroidered red dress of a prostitute; Pickled Herring, who is perhaps unaware that the “woman” is a youth, has phallic sausages and green beans draped over a shoulder, as well as broken eggs, which symbolise impotence, as does the collapsed bagpipes in front of him; Hans, who leers soberly at the androgynous floozy, has caught his/her attention and is making an obscene gesture with his fingers. A dish of sausages and an oyster in a dish, redolent of female sexuality, sits before them. The symbolism is coarsely funny, but Hals isn’t mocking these revellers as much as enjoying their company and their bawdy fun and infusing it with egalitarian vitality.

01 Hals Young Man and Woman in an Inn MMAYonker Ramp (pictured right), suggested by the “Prodigal Son” motif that remained popular in Dutch culture, is more moralistic. A drunken young man wearing a fancily tailored grey coat and hat with a huge blue feather that matches the sleeves of his satin under-jacket, guffaws as he holds aloft a glass. Here it is a grinning trollop (she hopes, no doubt, to get her hands on his father’s money) who looks out of the picture. This device of having a character make eye contact with the artist, which gives the impression he has caught a single moment in time, anticipates snapshot photography by over 300 years.

In contrast with Yonker Ramp, The Smoker (c 1625, pictured below left), a much smaller painting in an octagonal frame, is a “close-up". It depicts another dissolute ruddy youth, this one with a thatch of gold-streaked tawny hair and a slashed velvet doublet who looks at the painter through slit eyes as he sucks on a clay pipe. He, too, has acquired a jolly wench who, like Yonker Ramp’s, has placed a hand on his breast (perhaps a few inches from his purse).

03 Hals The Smoker MMAIn Dutch society, smoking was, along with boozing and whoring, considered a vice, one that was bad for the body.

The painting looks dashed off, a little crude - Hals's brushstrokes were fast, though his preparation was probably meticulous - not least because the waitress in the background is rudimentary, but it makes its moral point with great visual economy without denigrating the young tobacco fiend, who looks enviously happy.


'Most are dressed in sombre black - Van Gogh enthused that Hals had 27 different varieties of that colour'


Sobriety takes over in the second room where there is an impressive array of Hals’s formal portraits of businessmen, dignitaries or scholars, the wife of one (couples were often painted in pairs of portraits that refer to each other through the sitters’ subtle gestures or body language) and a single matron (see gallery at the end). Most are dressed in sombre black - Van Gogh enthused that Hals had 27 different varieties of that colour - with feathery (or in one case transparent) white ruffs, which Hals painted with extraordinary verisimilitude.

04 Hals possibly Duyst van Voorhout MMAUnsurprisingly, the eyes turn immediately to the comparatively swashbuckling likeness, painted around 1636-1638, of a man believed to be Nicolaes Pietersz Duyst van Voorhout (pictured right), who owned a brewery called The Swan’s Neck. Rotund Nicolaes, if it is he, wears a white-cuffed shiny grey satin jacket, a vast white lace collar, and a black hat at the back of his thick light-brown coif, which matches his modest handlebar moustache and trim beard.

His expression suggests abundant shrewdness rather than guile, and he looks like a man one would trust and respect, though he wouldn’t suffer fools gladly. He faces the painter at an angle, his left fist on his hip and his arm crooked in the “Renaissance elbow” pose of the subject of Hals’s celebrated The Laughing Cavalier (1624) - he of the elaborately embroidered jacket, flaring handlebar and inescapable eyes - which is part of the Wallace Collection in London and didn’t travel to New York for the Met show.

The museum’s European curator Walter Liedtke, writing in the exhibition catalogue, notes how myths grew around these portraits. The Laughing Cavalier (misnamed in the Victorian era) is actually a portrait of a faintly smiling nobleman. The corpulence of the man in the “Nicolaes” picture, according to German cataloguer Gustav Waagen in 1854, “owes many a sacrifice to Bacchus”. This tallies with the highly unreliable reputation for drinking with which Hals himself was saddled thanks to a 1718 biography of him by the Dutch painter Arnold Houbraken. There is no earthly reason to believe that either the brewer or the artist he sat for were topers. (The "Cavalier" looks like a sherry man, even though he advertises McEwan's beer these days.)

If Hals’s portraits lack the drama and moodiness of Rembrandt’s, they arguably penetrate personalities more deeply. Although each of the men and women in the pictures surrounding Nicolaes exudes integrity, which is what most sitters, thinking of posterity, would desire, that integrity is qualified in each case by Hals’s uncanny intuiting of more complex characteristics.

05 Hals Petrus Scriverius MMA06 Hals Anna van der Aar MMA

The small oil-on-wood paired portraits of the Latin scholar and Dutch historian Petrus Scriverius and his wife Anna van der Aar (both 1626, pictured above) show a heavily bearded and balding blond man, older-looking than his 50 years, and a plain, heavy-lidded middle-aged woman. (They are painted in oval frames within rectangular frames; Anna has laid her right hand close to her heart, Petrus’s right hand holds a pair of gloves outside the oval, creating a trompe l’oeil effect.) These eminent Leiden citizens are unimpeachably upright, and yet Petrus’s furrowed brow suggests a man of short temper, and Anna’s dryness a hint of superiority.

'There is a groove in the right sight of his face that accents the faint twist of his mouth and a hint of the rascal in his eyes'


On the same wall is to be found Portrait of a Bearded Man With a Ruff (1625). In his late thirties or early forties, he almost cracks the canvas with his barely contained vigour: he could pass as a thinner Russell Crowe, minus the glower. Like Anna, he holds a hand to his heart in a gesture of sincerity, though one wonders… There is a groove in the right sight of his face that accents the faint twist of his mouth and a hint of the rascal in his eyes.

Pictured left to right: Bearded Man With a RuffPaulus Verschuur, Portrait of a Man

07 Hals Man with a Ruff MMA08 Hals Paulus Verschuur MMA09 Hals Portrait of a Man MMA

I am disposed to like him more than Paulus Verschuur, the wealthy 37-year-old Rotterdam merchant and government figure, painted by Hals in 1643, whose apparent hauteur makes him hard to warm to, though perhaps what Hals saw was a busy, commanding man uncomfortable or impatient with such intense scrutiny.

Slightly more serene is the fortyish sitter with superb chiselled features and long hair who is the subject of Portrait of a Man (c 1650-55). This is a dour type, a civic strongman, who would never have admitted any weakness, but who looks like he’d listen to reason. The fashionable ribbons at his waist and flounced sleeves indicate there was more to him than monolithic masculinity.

Amid such expressions of power, it’s a relief to turn to The Fisher Girl, a humble and rarely seen canvas in the same room (main image above). The briskly painted subject, who wears a black bonnet, a grey skirt and a white tunic with red sleeves, stands on a shore holding a basket of newly caught fish and eagerly proffers one silvery specimen to an unseen customer. A sail billows in the distance. Gulls wheel in the sky above her - it’s about to rain - and two men gossip on the cliffs behind, before which is the rotting hulk of a boat.

It’s been mooted that the “girl” is a fisherman’s daughter, but if so she may have been at her lowly trade for 30 years already. She is very small, but not the little girl she is sometimes believed to be, for there’s a wrinkle at her temple and strands of graying hair are encroaching from her hat onto her ruddy-sallow face, which is one of the most delightful Hals painted. Unfailing optimism pierces her life of hardship. And, happily, the passage of time has placed her on equal footing with the movers, shakers and roisterers of the Dutch Republic.

A gallery of pictures in the show can be seen below - click on a picture for full view (all reproductions courtesy Metropolitan Museum):


  1. Young Man and Woman in an Inn ("Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart”), 1623 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913)
  2. Merrymakers at Shrovetide, c 1616 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913)
  3. The Smoker, c 1625 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G Marquand, 1889)
  4. Portrait of a Man, possibly Nicolaes Pietersz Duyst van Voorhout (c 1600, died 1650) c 1636–38 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Jules Bache Collection, 1949)
  5. Petrus Scriverius, 1626 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, HO Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs HO Havemeyer, 1929)
  6. Anna van der Aar, 1626 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, HO Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs HO Havemeyer, 1929)
  7. Portrait of a Bearded Man with a Ruff, 1625 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Jules Bache Collection, 1949)
  8. Paulus Verschuur (1606–1667), 1643 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Archer M Huntington, in memory of his father, Collis Potter Huntington, 1926)
  9. Portrait of a Man, early 1650s (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G Marquand, 1890)
  10. Portrait of a Woman, c 1650 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G Marquand, 1890)
  11. The Fisher Girl, 1630-32 (Private collection)
  12. [Style of Frans Hals] Malle Babbe, c 1635–50 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, 1871)

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Sounds glorious - and looks it in those wonderful images. Shame it's not coming here.

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