National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Frans Hals (Dutch, c. 1582/1583–1666)

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Frans Hals was the leading painter in seventeenth-century Haarlem, a Dutch city whose prosperity derived from brewing beer and producing luxury fabrics. Although Hals painted some scenes of daily life, he was primarily a portraitist. His large group portraits of the civic guards and the directors of charitable institutions, all of which remain in the Netherlands, are especially famous.

Avoiding flattery, Hals depicted his sitters with a lively candor that appealed to their robust, informal tastes. Winning political independence from Spain in 1648 and the freedom to worship in the new Protestant faith, the Dutch Republic was also immensely wealthy from overseas trade. Dutch burghers, while taking great pride in material possessions, were still socially conservative, most adhering to a modest and simple lifestyle.

By strict religious law, these early Protestants wore only black and white clothing, regardless of the expense of the textiles. Hals turned the stark outfits to an advantage, using the neutral clothes to set off his sitters' complexions against pale tan or dark gray backgrounds.

Frans Hals' Style and Technique

No drawings by Frans Hals survive. This absence of preliminary studies suggests that he improvised directly on his canvases. The sketchy brushstrokes also imply he worked very quickly. Hals, who entered the Haarlem artists' guild in 1610, adopted an ever freer, looser handling of paint over the course of his career.

To compare Hals' changing styles, it is instructive to look carefully at details, such as lace collars, that he treated very differently during his development. Two details of hands—separated by some twenty years—demonstrate an evolution in Hals' technique.

An earlier work, an elderly woman's hand grasping a prayer book, is modeled with brushstrokes that follow and define the contours, curving around each finger and highlighting her ring. The book is clearly detailed, too, including its tooled, gilt decorations.

A man's gloved hand holding another glove, painted much later, reads as strokes of pure, thick paint when seen at close range. The brushwork is dashed and choppy, suggesting the solid forms of the fingers and the limpness of the empty glove but not revealing any details. Some of Hals' last works are so spontaneous in the handling of paint as to appear abstract.

Timeline of Events in Europe during Hals' Lifetime

1573 Haarlem, a Protestant stronghold, beseiged by Catholic Spanish army
c. 1582/1583 Frans Hals born in Antwerp
1582 Pope Gregory XIII institutes modern calendar
1597 Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens enters painters' guild in Antwerp
1599 Globe Theater, famous as Shakespeare's playhouse, opens in London
1609 Twelve Years' Truce ends war between Spain and the Netherlands
1610 Frans Hals enters painters' guild in Haarlem
1624 French painter Nicolas Poussin moves to Rome
1626 Dutch traders buy Manhattan Island and found colonies of New Amsterdam and Haarlem
1632 Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck knighted by British court
1642 Rembrandt paints The Night Watch, group portrait of an Amsterdam civic guard (Rijksmuseum)
1648 Treaty of Münster recognizes Netherlands' independence from Spain
1653 Johannes Vermeer enters painters' guild in Delft
1664 Dutch lose American colonies to the British; New Amsterdam renamed New York
1666 Frans Hals dies in Haarlem
1677 Dutch prince William III of Orange marries British princess Mary; in 1689, they become William and Mary of England

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