The happy drinker

by Thomas Stiegler

When I was a child, there was an old children’s programme that I can hardly remember. The only thing that stuck in my mind was the refrain of the theme song: “You know Rembrandt and Rubens, for they all painted in Flanders.”

When I remembered the song again, it struck me that the lyrics were right. For almost everyone today knows the names of Rembrandt or Rubens. Vermeer and van Dyck are also still familiar to many of us. But there is one painter who, although he is one of the most important figures in Dutch painting, has almost completely disappeared from our memory and is almost never mentioned. Yet Frans Hals was one of the most important portrait painters of his time and, through his idiosyncratic technique, an important source of inspiration for subsequent generations up to and including the Impressionists.

He was born around 1580 as the son of a clothier who, when his home town of Antwerp fell to the Duke of Parma, moved with his family to what was then the Netherlands. There, the name Hals appeared for the first time in March 1591, when the family registered in the church register of Haarlem to baptise Frans’ younger brother Dirck.

Portrait of a couple, probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, Frans Hals, c. 1622; © Rijksmuseum; Link to the picture

Here Frans Hals also became a pupil of the painter Karel van Manders and remained so until the latter left the city. (This Karel van Manders is, by the way, a very interesting personality who has gone down in art history as the author of the famous “Schilderboek”). After the departure of his teacher, Frans Hals probably continued his studies autodidactically and was so successful that in 1610 he was accepted into the Lukasgilde, the local painters’ guild of Haarlem. His earliest known work, the portrait of Jacobus Zaffius, was painted during this period.

Probably spurred on by the financial security of further orders, he took the step of starting his own family and married Anneke Harmensdochter. But the family happiness lasted only a short time – during the birth of their second son, his wife died and Frans Hals was left alone with his children. Despite his responsibilities and serious financial difficulties, he travelled to Antwerp the following year to study the works of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthonis van Dyck and thus perfect his painting technique. Returning from there, he rearranged his life and married again, this time to Lysbeth Reyniers, who bore him eight more children. Five of his sons were also later trained as painters, including the well-known artists Frans the Younger (1618-1669), Reynier (1627-1671) and Nicolaes (1628-1686).

In the period that followed, Frans Hals produced a number of important paintings, although it was the commissions from the Haarlem Rifle Guild that secured him the greatest notoriety – not least for this reason he was to devote himself faithfully to this task year after year until 1637.

In the early 1640s, when both Peter Paul Rubens and Anthonis van Dyck died within a short space of time, he rose to become the most important portrait painter in the Netherlands and was even elected to the board of the Haarlem painters’ guild in 1644. In the following decades he was to complete a body of work of which more than 200 paintings have been preserved and which carried his reputation far beyond the borders of his home town.

He died, aged about 84, in Haarlem in the summer of 1666.

If you look at the portrait work of Frans Hals, you will notice that it can be roughly divided into two groups. On the one hand, there are portraits executed in a traditional manner, such as the “Portrait of Lucas de Clercq” or the “Portrait of Maritge Claesdr Vooght”. However, he has gone down in art history as the creator of works that originated from a completely different intention. These paintings still correspond to our usual conception of a portrait, but they are primarily genre paintings, i.e. depictions of the common people and their living conditions, the most famous of which are certainly “The Fool with the Lute”, “Singing Boy with Flute” and the painting “Malle Babbe”.

Portrait of Lucas de Clercq, Frans Hals, c. 1635; © Rijksmuseum; Link to the image

By the way, “Malle Babe” is a good example of what has just been said. For although she is a historically documented figure whose name appears in the records of the workhouse in Haarlem, she no longer interests us as a concrete person. Rather, we look at her face and see in its features the agony of a confused animal that has strayed into the world of the living and now seeks its refuge in madness.

With this novel conception of a portrait, Frans Hals managed to break down the traditional boundaries of his time; this may also have been the reason why he chose unknown persons – for only in this way could he break away from the object and break new ground with the greatest artistic freedom.

Another example of his art of objectifying people and depicting the idea behind a figure beyond the individual is “The Merry Drunkard”. Here we should know that men drinking wine, either as quiet revelers or – better still – as merry bacchantes, were a popular and widespread subject of Dutch painting long before Frans Hals. But no one before succeeded in capturing such a spontaneously honest image of a drinker on canvas as Frans Hals.

A militiaman with a glass in his hand, known as the “Merry Drunkard”, Frans Hals, c. 1628 – c. 1630 ; © Rijksmuseum; Linkto the image

Here he shows us a middle-aged man dressed in a light leather jerkin, cheerfully raising his glass. We see a cheerful reveler – despite a serious drawl around the eyes – who throws a toast at us or speaks a joking word, and already at first sight we are captivated by the immediate liveliness of the image, which almost reminds us of a snapshot. Today, especially thanks to smartphones and the like, we are used to such shots and we no longer notice how refreshingly new and spontaneous this painting comes across. But if you compare this painting with the stiff portraits of his contemporaries, you sense the courage with which Frans Hals broke new ground here.

The painting technique that the artist used in his work is also interesting: with loose brushstrokes he applies – almost like in spontaneous painting – individual strokes and dabs of colour that, seen from close up, appear to have been placed at random (look at the collar of the shirt, for example), but which, if you take a few steps back, combine to form an image of immediate vividness. This also includes details such as the dark strokes for the chin and moustache or the white spots for the reflections on the wine glass or the sweat-covered forehead. I am particularly impressed by how the blurred texture of the right sleeve suggests spontaneous movement. A wonderful, ingeniously refreshing idea for its time.

As you can see, Frans Hals is rightly regarded as one of the greatest painters in Dutch history, and it is incomprehensible that his name and a large part of his works are almost forgotten today!

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From the book: Cultural Histories of Europe

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