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Antwerp 1581 – 1666 Haarlem

Frans Hals was a celebrated Dutch portraitist of the seventeenth century renowned for his impromptu style. No drawings by Hals are known and his paintings are characterized by spirited, freely applied wet-in-wet brushstrokes and impastoed textures — an innovation that heralds the abstract qualities of Diego Velázquez and Édouard Manet. Chiefly active in Haarlem, Hals built on the efforts of Goltzius (1558–1617), Cornelis van Haarlem (1562–1638) and Karel van Mander (1548–1606) in forming a self-conscious identity propelled by the Dutch independence and bourgeoning capitalist art market. His subjects ranged from individuals of the debonair elite class down to gypsies and fishermen, often set against a monochrome background, to depictions of families and groups of civic militia, which form the apotheosis of the collective portrait that emerged as a distinctive genre of the nascent Republic. Hals' oeuvre constitutes the best social documentation of the outward fashion and the inner conflict increasingly brought by the ‘embarrassment of the riches’ witnessed during his lifetime — a contribution no less recognized today than the dedication of the Haarlem municipal museum to the artist. 

Hals' first major commission dates from 1616, the monumental Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia of Haarlem (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem) depicts his own superiors who were leading citizens of Haarlem. It was the first of six large group portraits of militia men ultimately commissioned three years before Rembrandt’s Night Watch in 1639 on the cusp of its declining popularity. Hals’ dynamic composition was by far the most inventive departure from the stiff and stylized treatment of precursors, exemplified by Dirck Jacobsz (1529; Amsterdam Museum, Amsterdam). Stylistically Hals took cues from Flemish prototypes which were readily available through prints while his three-month visit to Antwerp, his birth city, in 1616 had a decisive impact. Post-Italy Rubens and the young Jacob Jordaens impressed upon him, especially the head studies of Jordaens modeled after real sitters and executed with vivacity. Following the earliest example of Merry Makers at Shrovetide (1616; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Hals’ genre scenes mostly date from the 1620s and 30s and employs the Flemish type of merry making commoner type. However, Hals’ sensibility was never threatened by the middle-class obsession of ostentation and material wealth. He was interested in the institution of marriage, family, social miliue, and many of his portrayal of individuals were a ‘tronie’ — a character study representing a certain type — rather than an individualized portrait. Some of his best known works fall into this category: the Laughing Cavelier (1624; Wallace Collection, London), Malle Babbe (ca. 1633-35; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), Fisherboy (ca. 1630; musée Royal des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp,) and Boy with a Lute (ca. 1625; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).  Many of these single-figure portraits feature a consistent individual light source from the left, casting a shadow behind. With the rise of the art market, the demand for such works peaked in the 1630s and 40s when Rembrandt (1606­–69) took helm in neighboring Amsterdam. Hals is indebted to Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656), the Utrecht Caravaggist for introducing the subject of music players into his repetoire. Hals’ students include Adriaen Brouwer (1605–38) and Adriaen van Ostade (1610–85), Dirck van Delen (1605–71), Philips Wouwerman (1619–68), Judith Leyster (1609–60) – the leading female painter of the seventeenth century – and possibly her husband Jan Miense Molenaer (1610–68).  In the 1650s, the highly finished stillness of Verspronck was the antithesis of Hals. The spontaneity remains constant in his oeuvre but Hals tones down the bright hints of orange and yellows to sober shades of greys in his late works. 

In the 1860s Hals was rescued from obscurity by the French critic Theophile Thore, who also rediscovered Vermeer. As a result, Hals was on the shopping list of all late nineteenth-century American industrialists and plutocrats in the likes of Frick and Wadsworth, as well as the English genteel such as the Earl of Iveagh.


Top Auction Results for Frans Hals

Portrait of Willem van Heythuysen, seated on a chair and holding a hunting crop
Sold for £7,097,250 ($12,976,467)
London, Sotheby’s, 9 July 2008, Old Master Paintings Evening Sale, lot 26

Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman
Sold for £8,251,500 ($12,852,804)
London, Christie’s, 8 July 1999, The Collection of the Barons Nathaniel and Albert Von Rothschild, lot 219

Portrait of a gentleman, aged 37; and Portrait of a lady, aged 36
Sold for £10,021,250 ($12,803,437)
London, Christie’s, 6 December 2018, Important Old Master Paintings from The Eric Albada Jelgersma Collection: Evening sale, lot 10


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