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Frans Hals (Dutch, c. 1582/1583–1666)
Shown from the waist up, a smiling, light-skinned young man wears a voluminous, dark hat tilted at a rakish angle and a brown suit in this vertical portrait painting. He sits with his body angled to our left so his right elbow, farther from us, hooks over the back of his wooden chair. He turns his face so his chin is pulled slightly back, to look at us over his left shoulder with dark eyes under dark brows. His cheeks are flushed and his ginger-colored mustache frames his pink lips, parted in a smile. His straight auburn hair falls to his ears under a wide-brimmed hat as wide as his shoulders. The brim seems to be flipped up and is broad enough that it covers the crown of the hat. A flat, white, lace-edged collar is tied with a crimson ribbon at his throat. Wide lace cuffs extend back along his forearms over his pecan brown jacket, which is lined with a row of shiny buttons down the front. His left hand, closer to us, seems to rest on his lap just out of sight, so that elbow juts toward us. His opposite hand wraps in a fist around the finial of the chair back. He seems to sit beyond an oval opening painted to resemble a stone frame within the rectangular panel. The face of the frame and the background behind the man are shades of peanut and fawn brown. The painting is created with fluid brushstrokes that add to the energy and vitality of the portrait.


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.

A Young Man in a Large Hat, 1626/1629, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940.1.12

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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.

(left) Portrait of an Elderly Lady (detail), 1633, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.67

(right) Adriaen van Ostade (detail), 1646/1648, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.70

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This vertical portrait shows an older woman wearing a full, long-sleeved, rich black dress with a wide white ruff at her neck and white lace cuffs at her wrists. She sits in a curving, low-backed wood chair against a pale brown background. Her body and the chair are angled slightly to our left and she looks directly at us. Her skin is fair, and she has small eyes, pink, rounded cheeks, and a wide chin. Her lips are parted in a slight smile and her hair is covered by a starched, sheer white cap that flares at the sides. The ruff around her neck is gathered in accordion-like, narrow figure-eight folds, and it extends flat and stiff, nearly to her shoulders. Close inspection reveals that the dress is woven with a black-on-black brocade pattern and has a line of small black buttons down the front. She holds a small brown leather book tooled with gold ornament in her right hand, on our left, and her opposite hand rests on the arm of the chair. She wears a gold ring on each hand. An inscription is painted to our left of her head: “AETAT SVAE 60 ANo 1633.”

One of Hals' most impressive portraits of women, this canvas bears a Latin inscription giving the sitter's age as sixty in the year 1633. Though her identity is unknown, her personality is clearly conveyed by the twinkle in her eyes, the smile on her half-parted lips, the firm grip of her hand on the chair, and the strength of her silhouette against the light gray-brown background.

The prayer book implies a pious character, and her clothing is conservative for the period. The velvet-trimmed brocade jacket, satin skirt, and lace cuffs and cap recall that Haarlem's wealth depended upon textiles. The linen ruff collar, then going out of style, would have been starched and supported on concealed wires.

Hals' portraits were often commissioned in pairs that depict husbands and wives facing each other. It is possible that a similarly sized canvas in the Frick Collection, New York City, showing an elderly man standing behind a chair, is the mate to this engaging work.

Portrait of an Elderly Lady, 1633, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.67

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Seen from the hips up, a man with a ruddy complexion and long, brown curly hair and goatee stands in front of a window opening onto a moonlit sky in this vertical portrait. His body faces our right and his right fist, closer to us, rests on his hip so his elbow juts towards us. Wearing a dark, wide brimmed hat, he turns his head to look over his right shoulder directly at us. His eyebrows are slightly raised over brown eyes and he has a bumpy nose, a slight double chin, and pale pink lips that curve in the mere suggestion of a smile. He wears a golden yellow jacket with buttons along the sleeve we can see. The wrist of the jacket is trimmed with a wide, lace-edged cuff and a similarly wide, lace-trimmed collar lays over the armor breastplate that covers his chest. A marigold orange sash is tied around the breastplate as well near the waist, and the goldenrod jacket drapes from a portly belly over his hips. He stands in front of an undefined gray wall pierced with a rectangular window, which is lined along the top with a veil of dark gray clouds over the moonlit sky.

The steel breastplate identifies this sitter as a soldier, but his broad-brimmed hat and lace collar and cuffs reveal that he is dressed to pose for an artist, not to engage in military maneuvers. Hals painted six gigantic group portraits of Dutch civic guards, but this is his only known portrait of an individual soldier.

As the Netherlands fractured into north and south along political and religious lines in the late 1500s, the civic guards battled heroically to win the north's independence from Spain. By Hals' time, though, these numerous militias had become social fraternities. Named for a patron saint, each guard group was divided into three companies based on the colors of the Dutch flag: orange, white, and blue. His sash marks this soldier as a member of an orange company.

With great bravura, the smiling man stands before a window overlooking a distant plain or sea. Only two of Hals' other portraits of single figures include such landscape vistas.

Portrait of a Member of the Haarlem Civic Guard, c. 1636/1638, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.68

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Willem Coymans (1623–1678) was a member of one of Holland's wealthiest merchant families. Their crest of oxen heads hangs on the wall; the Dutch name Coymans literally translates as "cow men." Below the shield, a Latin inscription states that Willem was 22 years old in 1645. Hals rarely dated his pictures. Since his few datings normally also provide the subjects' ages, the inscriptions must have been requested by the patrons to serve as genealogies.

Hals was the first portraitist who consistently depicted his subjects seated sideways, with their arms hooked casually over the backs of their chairs. Coymans, an elegant dandy proud of his expensive clothes, wears an embroidered jacket and sports a pom–pom on his hat, which is pushed forward rakishly. Hals' dazzling brushwork is especially evident in the gold embroidery and the crisply pleated shirt–sleeve.

Willem Coymans, 1645, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.69

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With an alert glance at the viewer, this portly youth rests his elbow on the back of his chair. Hals' earliest known use and possible invention of a model turned sideways in a chair dates to 1626, but he employed this lively pose often during the 1640s.

The National Gallery's Willem Coymans, dated 1645, relies on a similarly informal posture. Both works are also related in style, with the faces more firmly modeled and detailed than the broader, more suggestive brushstrokes of their costumes and accessories. Portrait of a Young Man may be slightly later because its brushwork appears even more rapidly applied. A few wavy strokes depict the lion's head finial of the chair, and an emphatic criss-cross pattern describes the collar.

Just above the sitter's hand, Frans Hals signed the work with his initials doubled: FHFH. The purpose of the unique double monograms remains unexplained.

Portrait of a Young Man, 1646/1648, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.71

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Seen from about the hips up, a man with peachy skin, wearing an ink-black hat and coat with a bright white collar, looks out at us against a brownish, olive-green background in this vertical portrait painting. He stands with his body angled to our right and his face turned to look at us with dark gray eyes. His slim face is framed in long, brown curls under his tall, brimmed hat, which is cocked a little to our right, away from us. He has a straight, prominent nose, lightly flushed cheeks, and a wispy, light brown mustache above a stamp of a beard beneath his lower lip. His neck is encased in a broad, starched, white linen collar, its wings laying along his collarbones. His velvety black coat has a row of tightly spaced buttons down the front and sleeves of elephantine puffiness. A cummerbund or sash wraps around his waist and hips. He rests his right hand, on our left, against his hip near his lower back, palm facing out. He wears a light, dove-gray glove on his opposite hand, and holds a second glove in that same hand. The portrait is painted loosely, with broader brushstrokes in some areas, such as the hand at his hip and in the folds of the black garments.

Adriaen van Ostade (1610–1685) specialized in painting scenes of country peasants such as The Cottage Dooryard in the Gallery's collection. Before entering Haarlem's guild of artists in 1634, Ostade probably had been Frans Hals' pupil. This painting bears a strong resemblance to a self-portrait by Ostade and also appears to be the model for an engraved print titled as representing Ostade. The occasion for this commission may have been Ostade's election in 1647 as a head of the guild.

Hals depicted his fellow artist as a refined gentleman wearing fashionable apparel denoting professional success. Gloves, for example, were an essential feature of seventeenth-century social decorum. Ostade has removed the glove from his right hand, the one used in greeting. His bare right palm, open to the viewer, reinforces his forthrightness.

Adriaen van Ostade, 1646/1648, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.70

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Shown from the thighs up, a man with cream-colored skin, wearing a black suit, cape, and hat, stands with one hand on his hip against an elephant-gray background in this vertical portrait painting. The portrait is loosely painted in some areas, especially in the costume and background, though the face is more detailed. His body is angled slightly to our right so one shoulder juts toward us, to our left, and he turns his face to look at us golden-brown eyes. One bushy brow is slightly arched. He has a long, bumped nose, soft jowls along his jawline, and perhaps a mole almost lost in shadow on his left cheek, to our right. His wide, pale peach lips are closed and framed by a thin, brushy mustache and a patch of hair under his lower lip. His shoulder-length, wavy, light brown hair curls around his face and he wears a tall, black hat with a wide brim turned over his right ear, to our left. A hip-length, ink-black cloak drapes over a long-sleeved black jacket. A wide, flat, white collar lays across his shoulders and is tied with fluffy tassels that hang on his chest. Streaks of slate-gray suggest horizontal bands next to buttons down the front of his jacket and along the forearms, above white cuffs with parallel pleats.  He stands with his right arm, to our left, loose by his side and he grips the fabric of his cloak in a loose fist. The back of his opposite hand rests against his left hip, to our right, and a few streaks of parchment-brown suggest a glove hanging from that hand. The background is painted with thin, blended areas of elephant gray and peanut brown, similar to the man’s hair color.

Sketchy contours, especially around the hat and cape, are evidence that Hals improvised and adjusted this design as he worked. The long cape, the tassels on the collar, and the gloves dangling idly from one hand indicate that the patron was a person of some means. Like Hals' Adriaen van Ostade, this gentleman has removed his right glove to shake hands.

The very fact that this is a three-quarter-length figure adds to its dignity. Full-length, life-size portraits of individual sitters were very unusual in seventeenth-century Holland, probably because the Dutch burghers associated such large images with aristocratic pretensions. Frans Hals painted only one life-size, full-length likeness of an individual sitter. A three-quarter-length portrait, therefore, is as about as grandiose a work as this matter-of-fact artist produced. Even here, though, Hals candidly recorded a mole on the handsome sitter's cheek.

Portrait of a Gentleman, 1650/1652, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.29

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In the lower left corner, this canvas bears Frans Hals' monogram: FH. The unidentified sitter holds his right hand over his chest, covering his heart. This gesture not only conveys his sincerity and passion but also may imply that he is an artist who proclaims his sensitivity.

The fluid brushstrokes defining individual strands of hair are consistent with Hals' later work. At that time, hats with cylindrical crowns and upturned brims were stylish. This hat must have been painted out sometime before 1673. That was the year of the death of a minor Dutch artist who copied this portrait with the model bare-headed. In 1991, National Gallery conservators removed the overpaint and revealed the portrait's original appearance with the hat pushed back high on the head.

Portrait of a Man, 1648/1650, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.28

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