This masterful painting by Frans Hals, which is neither signed nor dated, is unrecorded prior to 1919, when it appeared at a London auction as a self-portrait by the Dutch Italianate painter Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem (Dutch, 1620 - 1683). The identity of the sitter as Berchem cannot be sustained any more than can the attribution to that artist. Berchem’s self-portrait drawing of about 1660 represents a heavier-set person with a more rounded face than that seen in this portrait [fig. 1]. Instead, the artist whom Hals has portrayed here is Adriaen van Ostade (Dutch, 1610 - 1685), the renowned Haarlem painter of rural life. The connection between this painting and Ostade was made by Claus Grimm, who compared this image to two established likenesses of the artist. The first is a small-scale self-portrait in the background of Van Ostade's group portrait of the De Goyer family (Museum Bredius, The Hague) of about 1650. An even more striking comparison is Jacob Gole’s mezzotint portrait of Van Ostade that was executed after a lost painting by the latter’s pupil Cornelis Dusart (Dutch, 1660 - 1704) [fig. 2]. As Eduard Trautscholdt recognized, Dusart must have based his portrait on an earlier representation of the artist; Dusart—who was born in 1660, when his master was fifty years old—depicted Van Ostade as a considerably younger man than he could ever have known. Moreover, he portrayed the artist rather anachronistically in a kimono, scarf, and wig, fashionable garb for the late seventeenth century. Grimm convincingly concluded that the National Gallery of Art’s painting by Hals was Dusart’s model. Its remarkable resemblance to the image in Gole’s mezzotint when reversed (thereby reproducing the pose in Dusart’s painting) argues for the direct connection between the two works.
Arnold Houbraken writes that Van Ostade was Hals’ pupil for a time. If Houbraken is correct, this apprenticeship must have occurred before 1634, when Van Ostade became a member of the Saint Luke’s Guild in Haarlem. Later contacts between the two men are not documented, but they were among the preeminent artists in Haarlem during the middle decades of the century. Hals seems to have had close personal relations with Haarlem’s artistic community and he portrayed a number of his colleagues. In addition to this portrait of Adriaen van Ostade, Hals’ surviving portraits of identifiable artists are those of Vincent Laurensz van der Vinne (Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto) and Frans Post (Worcester Art Museum).
Hals represents Van Ostade as a gentleman, dressed in fashionable clothes. The pose is similar to one Hals used for the wealthy Rotterdam merchant Paulus Verschuur in 1643 [fig. 3]. Both subjects hold their right glove in their left hand, a variant of a gesture seen frequently in Hals’ portraits. While the exact meaning of this motif is not known, the symbolism of gloves was apparently a well-understood aspect of seventeenth-century decorum. Smith writes that to take off one’s gloves was a sign of friendship, and it may be significant that in both of these instances the right hand, the one used for greeting, has been ungloved. Its position, with the palm exposed to the viewer, reinforces the quality of openness and forthrightness evident in these works.
Although Seymour Slive dates this work in the early 1650s, an earlier date seems probable. The thematic and compositional relationships already noted between the Washington painting and the portrait of Paulus Verschuur from 1643 are also found with other works of the mid-1640s, specifically the Portrait of a Standing Man, c. 1645, in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. The looser handling of the paint in the Washington picture, most evident in the abstract, angular brushwork in the gloves but also visible in the broken contour of the silhouetted right arm and in the bold highlights along the nose and under the right eye, suggests, however, a somewhat later date of 1646/1648. These stylistic characteristics can be seen in a number of other works from this period, among them the Seated Man Holding a Hat, c. 1648–1650 (Taft Museum, Cincinnati). By the early 1650s Hals’ style had become less agitated, as a comparison with the National Gallery of Art’s Portrait of a Gentleman demonstrates. At that time he blocked in the silhouettes of his figures with broad, angular strokes rather than with the broken contours that characterize his work from the late 1640s. The explicit virtuosity of his technique for rendering Van Ostade’s gloves with rapidly applied diagonal accents later gave way to simpler forms with more measured rhythms.
A date of 1646/1648 also seems compatible with Van Ostade’s age. In 1646 he would have been thirty-six years old, and the image seems to represent a man in his mid-thirties. In 1647 Van Ostade was elected to be one of the headmen of the Saint Luke’s Guild in Haarlem, so the portrait may have been intended to commemorate this significant moment in the artist’s career. While many of Hals’ three-quarter-length standing male figures have a female pendant, no evidence exists that one ever accompanied this portrait. At the time Hals painted it, Van Ostade had no wife: his first spouse had died in 1642, and he did not remarry until 1657.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014