The first major Frans Hals exhibition in thirty years makes it clear: there is always something to laugh about with him

It is immediately clear from the dates in brackets: frustratingly little is known about the life of the Haarlem painter Frans Hals (1582/’84-1666). In the recently published biography The portrait painter the American Steven Nadler makes a valiant attempt to make something of it, but you laugh when you read for the umpteenth time that Hals may have had a few more children, that he has probably been here or there and that it is not inconceivable that he has met this or that person. Anyone who knew someone who may have ever been in contact with Hals will receive a mini-biography of a few pages to make up for the fact that Hals’ own life facts cannot be stretched to more than a few pages.


Frans Hals can be seen until June 9 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


The main conclusion after reading the book is that you should not read about Frans Hals, but look at his paintings. Because although no letters, notes or drawings from him have been preserved, there are still around 200 paintings in existence (experts continue to attribute and depreciate) in which all brushstrokes were applied by Hals. Those brushstrokes are still legible to everyone. The works of art themselves are the sources we have, and those sources clearly show that Hals was one of the best people painters of his time, even one of the best portraitists in the entire history of art.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam now houses 48 of his most beautiful paintings, including several large group portraits. The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem exceptionally lent two militia pieces and Hals’ famous one Smiling cavalier (1624) has left the London Wallace Collection for the first time since 1900. It is the first major Frans Hals overview in 34 years, organized in collaboration with the National Gallery in London and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. The exhibition was accompanied by a book that is more than a catalogue: it is actually a better book about Hals than Nadler’s recent biography. All biographical information can also be read here (art historian Jaap van der Veen actually made a few new archive discoveries), but the book mainly contains excellent reflections on Hals’ work, good reproductions and many tasty details, which are full-page or even on two pages. are depicted.

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Paint party

If you ever want to explain to someone what is nice about painting, you have to take him or her to the south wing of the Rijks. Almost every painting is a paint party with a frame around it, and in the spacious halls in Amsterdam the works look even more beautiful than last autumn in London. Frans Hals had something that we have been used to since the 19th century impressionists, but which is rare in older painting: a particularly loose, suggestive way of painting. Vélazquez also had it, Rubens and Veronese came close. The late Titian and the late Rembrandt also painted quite roughly, but needed more paint than Hals. With them it is suggestive, but not smooth. Hals painted more sparkling and more accurately. Rembrandt’s much-discussed standard bearer pales next to his laughing cavalier.

The Laughing Cavalier, 1624, Oil on canvas, 83 × 67.3 cm. Photo The Wallace Collection, London

The attractive thing about such loose brushwork is its meta side: the painter shows his subject – in Hals’ case always a person or a group of people – but always, at the same time, the way in which he shows that subject. It’s paint, but it’s also lifelike, but it’s also paint, and so on. The painter is the magician who gives insight into his tricks and yet manages to make you fall into it with your eyes open. You know, you see that it is an illusion and that illusion still does its job. Presto!

In a round child’s portrait from the Mauritshuis, for example, there are blond-brown paint smears on a panel and soft children’s locks on a forehead. Paint strokes in which the hairs of the brush are almost visible are of course suitable for hairstyles and facial hair: see also the straw-like goatee of a certain Pieter Verdonck and the greasy tufts of darker hair on his head, see the thick dog hair in a man’s portrait from the Metropolitan Museum and the upturned Dalí mustache of the laughing cavalier. Or the strands of hair that move gracefully with the volume of a singing girl’s skull. The diamond-shaped portrait from Richmond, Virginia recalls an old shampoo commercial: Pam, your hair is dancing!

Furthermore, Hals’ loose touch works great in hats with feathers and frills on clothes, which he happily reproduced. Even more astonishing is that he was also able to put together anatomically correct hands with his loose strokes. Finger phalanges are playfully painted, the light and shadow sides of mice and palms are no more than brushes of paint rubbing against each other – and yet the viewer is given a firm hand.

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Singing Girl, c. 1628. Boy playing a violinFoto’s: David Stover / Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Baby teeth

Finally, Hals’ lively painting style contributes much to the liveliness in the faces and postures of his models. It is an appropriate, efficient handwriting to suggest mobility and spontaneous, short-lived facial expressions. Above all: the smile. “Laughter must have been Hals’s trademark,” curator Friso Lammertse writes in the catalogue. His colleague Bart Cornelis calls Hals “an exceptionally astute observer of facial expressions.” Indeed, his oeuvre contains a wide range of smiles and laughs. In a double portrait with her husband Isaac Massa, the young Beatrix van der Laen has a subtle smile that can be interpreted as shy or challenging, which raises the question of whether a challenging look does not always contain something of mock shyness. Her smile is actually much more mysterious than that of the Mona Lisa. In the children’s portraits, baby teeth are exposed out of pure, uninhibited fun and the mentally disabled Barbara, who was known in Haarlem as Malle Babbe, has a beautiful wild grimace on her face. The 22-year-old nobleman Jasper Schade, with his haughty smile and dandy clothes, is reminiscent of Rod Stewart in the glam rock years.

The most beautiful smile is the radiant smile of the young man who looks to the side with amusement while playing a lute

The most beautiful smile rightly adorns the exhibition poster: that is the radiant smile of the young man – his budding mustache shows through the (painted) skin – who looks to the side in amusement while he plays a lute. This painting from the Louvre makes it clear why a smile is called a smile: that boy is simply beaming with joy.

In September, when the Hals exhibition opened in London, in The Guardian a strikingly sour review by art critic Jonathan Jones. “They have no inner lives,” he wrote about the people Hals painted. “Hals’ endless playful variations in posture, facial expression, hairstyle and clothing rarely – or frankly never – say anything about the person inside. Pretty soon I stopped believing in them as real people.”

Portrait of Catharina Hooft with her nurse, 1619 – 1620 Photo Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Perhaps the contemporary view that art has to be strict and that the eye of the beholder must be able to find something of lived-inness, vulnerability or discomfort in a portrait. In our time, you are confronted with so much laughter every day that you can’t help but laugh: in commercials everyone is happy, on social media everyone presents a cheerful, successful version of themselves. Something different is therefore expected of art. But in the 17th century there were no cameras, let alone cell phones. There was laughter, but most portrait painters couldn’t keep up. Hals could handle it, he observed sharply and acted quickly, was resourceful and decisive in his way of taking notes. He could choose to capture moments of happiness and contentment. He could choose lifelike laughter instead of lifelike suffering.

Look again at that lute-playing boy, at the smiling cavalier. After Catharina Hooft’s nurse in a double portrait from Berlin: her endearing smile is suggested by Hals with one accurate line, one purple-brown earthworm between two pink lips. Like many other faces painted by Hals, hers remains etched in your memory forever. Anyone who has previously seen portraits of him experiences the overview in the Rijksmuseum as a reunion with old acquaintances. How real do you want it, Jonathan Jones?

Portrait of Jasper Schade, 1645 National Museum, PragueThe Lute Player, ca. 1623 Photo Musée du Louvre, Paris

Hals was a limited artist in that he only made portraits, nothing else. But as the French painter Eugène Fromentin noted in his book The masters of yesteryear (1876): “as a craftsman he is one of the ablest and most skilled masters that ever existed in any country, including Flanders despite Rubens and Van Dyck, and including Spain despite Velázquez. (…) Never has one painted better and one will never paint better.”

That’s why all visitors (except a grumpy one Guardian-critic then) come out of this exhibition cheerfully – with a broad smile on their face, painted by Hals.

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