Frans Hals
Biography of Dutch Realist Portrait Painter, Haarlem School.

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Frans Hals: Self-Portrait (1645-8)
(Now lost).

Frans Hals (1582-1666)


Early Paintings
Group Portraits
The Laughing Cavalier
Mature Portraits
Artistic Legacy

The Laughing Cavalier (1624)
Wallace Collection, London.
Hal's most famous painting and
of the great Baroque portraits.

Dutch Realist Artists
A list of the great painters of
the Baroque Dutch Golden Age.


One of the great Old Masters of the Dutch Baroque movement, the Flemish-born painter Frans Hals specialized in portrait art and was the first great master of the 17th century Dutch Realism school. Considered to be one of the best portrait artists of the Age, ranking alongside Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) and Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), he is particularly noted for his large-scale group portraiture, and the informal spontaneity of his work. Twice married, with at least ten children, he was constantly in financial difficulties, and survived destitution largely due to a small pension awarded him by the civic authority in Haarlem. His brother Dirck Hals (1591-1656), was also a painter. His best known portrait paintings include Jacobus Zaffius (1611, Hals Museum, Haarlem); The Laughing Cavalier (1624, Wallace Collection, London); Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company (1616, Hals Museum); Lucas de Clercq (1635) and Feyntje van Steenkiste (1635) both in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; Regents of St Elizabeth Hospital (1641, Hals Museum); and the Regents and Regentesses of the Old Mens Alms House (1664, Hals Museum). After Rembrandt, Hals is recognized as the leading portraitist in 17th century Dutch painting (1600-80).

Frans Snyders (1579-1657)
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Hendrik Terbrugghen (1588-1629)
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David Teniers the Younger (1610-90)
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Gerard Terborch (1617-81)
Genre painter, Amsterdam, Haarlem.
Aelbert Cuyp (1620-91)
Dordrecht landscape artist.
Pieter de Hooch (1629-83)
Famous Delft school genre-painter.
Gabriel Metsu (1629-67)
Intimate small-scale genre scenes.

For top creative practitioners, see:
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For the finest works, see:
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The son of Flemish parents, Hals was born in Antwerp although his family soon moved to Holland after the city was captured by the Spanish in 1584. By 1591 he was settled in Haarlem, where he remained for the rest of his life.

He is said to have trained in the studio of Karel van Mander (1548-1606), a Flemish painter in the Mannerism style, although there is no discernible influence of the latter in Hals' early works. There are no other recorded details of his early training in fine art painting, or how he came to specialize in portraiture, although under Dutch Protestantism the market for religious painting had collapsed, and had been replaced by a growing bourgeois demand for small-scale easel art, notably interiors, portraiture and still life. In addition, numerous municipal groups and wealthy Guilds of craftsmen sought confirmation of their civic stature in the form of group pictures. It was this newly prosperous middle class which provided the financial impetus for the 17th century Golden Age of Dutch Baroque painting, which was led and exemplified by Hals, Vermeer (1632-75) and Rembrandt (1606-69). However, the lack of reliable institutional patronage - such as the support previously supplied by the Roman Catholic Church - made life extremely difficult for full-time painters, and even these three supreme artists ended their lives in poverty.

Early Paintings

Hals' early works are neither numerous, nor well documented. The earliest portrait attributed to him is Jacobus Zaffius (1611, Hals Museum, Haarlem), while other works were mainly earthy genre paintings,like Merry Company (c.1615-17, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The exuberance and light tonal palette of this picture, depicting a number of life-size drinkers, musicians and prostitutes, shows the influence of the Utrecht School, except Hals' style of Dutch Realist genre painting has a greater portrait-like character: witness his later Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart (1623, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and The Merry Drinker (1630, Rijksmusem, Amsterdam).


Group Portraits

From 1616 onwards his artistic progress becomes much clearer. In his first masterpiece - The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company (1616, Hals Museum, Haarlem), one of nine life-size group portraits he was to paint over the next 50 years - he served notice of his unique painterly skills by investing the genre with an entirely new style.

The Company of St George was one of two militia groups in Haarlem, whose military role during the war against Spain had now changed to a purely social one. After their 3-year term of service, officers often commissioned portraits of themselves and their fellows for their company headquarters. The artist's costs were borne equally by all those featured in the painting, and thus each sitter expected equal prominence - a situation which usually resulted in nothing more than a stilted assemblage of individuals, not unlike today's "class-photos". Hal's revolutionary approach was to break up the conventional monotonous rows of expressionless faces into different often assymmetrical groups of men with a wide variety of expressions, gestures and poses, thus investing the whole work with greater characterization and life. This novel approach was to reach its high point in Rembrandt's Night Watch (1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

Among Hal's group portraits are: Officers of the St Hadrian Militia Company (1627, Hals Museum); Meagre Company (1633: finished by Pieter Codde 1637, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam); Regents of St Elizabeth's Hospital (1641, Hals Museum); Regents of the Old Men's Home Haarlem (1664, Hals Museum) and Regentesses of the Old Men's Home Haarlem (1664, Hals Museum).

The Laughing Cavalier

By now a prominent member of the Dutch Baroque, Hals was in great demand as a portrait artist during the 1620s and 1630s. Unlike earlier traditional portraitists such as Jan van Scorel (1495-1562) and his pupil Anthonis Mor Van Dashorst (Antonio Moro) (1521-77), he aimed to inject a sense of animation into his sitters through a smile, a laugh or hint of words spoken: call it a "speaking" as opposed to a visual likeness. He wanted his subjects to have "presence". It is this informal spontaneity, exemplified so vividly in his famous work The Laughing Cavalier (1624, Wallace Collection, London), which makes Hals such a great painter and which also distinguishes him from the more thoughtful, penetrating studies of Rembrandt.

Hals achieved this vitality by rejecting the smooth finish adopted by many other classical painters preferring instead to employ smears, rough lines, spots, large patches of colour and minimal detail. All this contributed to the animated freshness of his canvases, and the informal but life-like appearance of his sitters.

Mature Portraits

In the 1640s and 1650s, he completed numerous companion pictures of husbands and wives such as Stephanus Geraerdts (1650-2, Museum of Fine Art, Antwerp) and Isabella Coymans (1650-2, Paris), as well as some life-size family group portraits (see examples in the National Gallery, London). His patrons now encompassed civic leaders, professional men, theologians and University professors, including the philosopher Rene Descartes (1649, Copenhagen Museum). During this time, due to age, financial difficulty, or perhaps the new sense of seriousness in the now well-established Dutch Republic, his style of painting began to change. As his earlier pictures exuded gaiety and liveliness, so his later works highlighted the stature and dignity of his sitters. He appeared to devote more attention to the character and personality of his subject (as in his portraits of Admiral de Ruyter and Jacob Olycan), while his vivid colours began to be replaced by monochromatic schemes and darker tones.

But even if his palette was now restricted to blacks, whites, greys, yellowish browns and flesh tints, it was still displayed enormous variety - as Vincent Van Gogh remarked, more than three hundred years later, Hals possessed more than 27 blacks!

At the same time, while the mood of his paintings became quieter, his brushstrokes and handling of paint became increasingly looser and more vigorous, an impressionistic style later taken up with great success by the great 19th century artist Edouard Manet (1832-83). Hals has always had the reputation of being a virtuoso painter, noted (like John Singer Sargent 1856-1925) for his tendency to employ the au premier coup method (aus einem Guss) of working directly on the canvas. However, this tendency may have been overstated: research shows that (despite the absence of any sketches or studies by Hals) he did occasionally resort to chalk drawings before building up his canvas using layers of oils, albeit in a less systematic manner than that of his contemporaries Rubens (1577-1644) or Van Dyck (1599-1641).

Hals final works - both of extraordinary pathos - included the great group portraits featuring the Regents and Regentesses of Haarlem's Old Men's Alms House, painted when he was 80 years old. He passed away in 1666 and was interred in the city's St. Bavo Church. He was survived by his widow Lysbeth Reyniers (who later died in obscurity), and several of his children of whom four - Harmen (1611–1669), Frans Junior (1618–1669), Reynier (1627–1672) and Nicolaes (1628–1686) - became painters.

For other outstanding artists from Haarlem, see the architectural painter: Pieter Jansz Saenredam (1597-1665) and the still life masters: Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1680) and Pieter Claesz (1597-1660).

Artistic Legacy

Curiously, although he influenced a number of other Dutch Realist Artists, including Adriaen Brouwer (1605–1638), Judith Leyster (1609–1660), Jan Miense Molenaer (1609–1668), Adriaen van Ostade (1610-85), and Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613–1670), Hals's reputation did not long outlive him. In fact, little was known about his virtuosity until his "rediscovery" (like Vermeer) in the 19th century when he was emulated by Impressionists and others such as Claude Monet (1840-1926), Edouard Manet, Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78), James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Max Liebermann (1847-1935) and Gustave Courbet (1819-77). Thereafter however, particularly from 1865 to 1925, he became one of the most collectible of Old Masters, becoming an icon for society portraitists. The revival began in 1865 with the purchase by Lord Hertford of The Laughing Cavalier for 51,000 francs - an unbelievable sum at the time and more than six times the pre-sale estimate - while Hals's upbeat style proved immensely attractive to the new coterie of American millionaires who began to dominate the international art market from the turn of the century: which accounts for the fact that so many of his works hang in American collections.

Works by Frans Hals can be found in nearly all the best art museums, particularly the Frans Hals Museum on the Groot Heiligland, Haarlem and the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

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