Frans Hals the Elder (c. 1580 – 26 August 1666) was a Dutch Golden Age painter. He is notable for his loose painterly brushwork, and helped introduce this lively style of painting into Dutch art. Hals was also instrumental in the evolution of 17th century group portraiture.
Movements: Baroque, Gesturalism
Hals was born in 1580 or 1581, in Antwerp. Like many, Hals’ family fled during the Fall of Antwerp (1584-1585) from the Spanish Netherlands to Haarlem, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Hals studied under another Flemish-émigré, Karel van Mander (1548–1606), whose Mannerist influence, however, is not noticeably visible in his work. At the age of 27, he became a member of the city’s painter’s corporation, the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke, and he started to earn money as an art restorer for the city council.
He worked on their large art collection that Karel van Mander had described in his book The Painting-Book (Middle Dutch: Het Schilder-Boeck), published in 1604. The most notable of these were the works of Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Jan van Scorel and Jan Mostaert, that hung in de St. Jans kerk in Haarlem.
The restoration work was paid for by the city of Haarlem, since all religious art was confiscated after the iconoclasm, but the entire collection of paintings was not formally possessed by the city council until 1625, after the city fathers had decided which paintings were suitable for the city hall. The remaining art that was considered too “Roman Catholic” was sold to Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, a fellow guild member, on the grounds that he remove it from the city. It was under these circumstances that Hals began his career in portraiture, since the market for religious themes had disappeared.
The earliest known example of Hals’ own art is the 1611, Jacobus Zaffius. His ‘breakthrough’ came in 1616, with the life-size group portrait, The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company. His most noted portrait today is the one he made in 1649 of René Descartes.
Although Hals’ work was in demand throughout his life, he lived so long that he eventually went out of style as a painter and experienced financial difficulties. In addition to his painting, he continued throughout his life to work as an restorer, art dealer, and art tax expert for the city councilors.
His creditors took him to court several times, and to settle his debt with a baker in 1652 he sold his belongings.
The inventory of the property seized mentions only three mattresses and bolsters, an armoire, a table and five pictures (these were by himself, his sons, van Mander, and Maarten van Heemskerck). Left destitute, the municipality gave him an annuity of 200 florins in 1664.
At a time when the Dutch nation fought for independence, Hals appeared in the ranks of the schutterij, a military guild. This fact found in the Haarlem archives has led to speculation that Hals made a self portrait in his 1639 painting of the St. Joris company, though this has never been confirmed. It was not normal for mere members to be painted, that privilege was reserved only for the officers. It is possible that he received the privilege as thanks for painting that company 3 times. Hals was also a member of a local chamber of rhetoric, and in 1644 chairman of the Painters Corporation at Haarlem.
Lets now enjoy his most celebrated works:
Hals is best known for his portraits, mainly of wealthy citizens, like Pieter van den Broecke and Isaac Massa, whom he painted three times. He also painted large group portraits, many of which showed civil guards. He was a Baroque painter who practiced an intimate realism with a radically free approach. His pictures illustrate the various strata of society; banquets or meetings of officers, sharpshooters, guildsmen, admirals, generals, burgomasters, merchants, lawyers, and clerks, itinerant players and singers, gentlefolk, fishwives and tavern heroes.
In group portraits, such as the Archers of St. Hadrian, Hals captures each character in a different manner. The faces are not idealized and are clearly distinguishable, with their personalities revealed in a variety of poses and facial expressions.
Frans Hals died in Haarlem in 1666 and was buried in the city’s St. Bavo Church. His widow later died obscurely in a hospital after seeking outdoor relief from the guardians of the poor.