Frans Hals – At Haarlem

IN Chapter III we have seen reason to believe that the Hals family migrated from Antwerp to their family city, Haarlem, not later than 1600. The landmarks in the life of Hals are very few ; but we seem to have one in the statement put forth in the second edition of the Lives of the Painters, ” Het Schilderboek,” by Karel Van Mander, issued in 1618. It is there claimed that Hals was one of Karel Van Mander’s pupils. There is no reason to set the statement aside, as has been done. It is true that it does not appear in the first edition of the book, published in the author’s lifetime (he died in 1606). But the reason is obvious, Hals at that period not being sufficiently famous to be worth claiming as a pupil Twelve or fourteen years after the author’s death, when Hals had painted at least one great picture and many good ones, the editors of the second edition naturally claim him for Karel Van Mander, and this claim is made during the life of Hals—he lived indeed for nearly fifty years longer—when it could have been denied by him at any moment if it had been untrue. The book was widely distributed among artists and those who were interested in art, and probably had nowhere a better sale than in Haarlem itself, where Van Mander had lived so long and had so large an acquaintance. It is obvious that such a statement, if it were false, would not have been deliberately inserted for readers who were perfectly able to contradict it. We may accept it, indeed, as one of the few absolutely verified facts in the early life of Hals, that he worked in the academy, atelier, life-school, call it what you will, which Karel Van Mander held at Haarlem.

Karel Van Mander, sometimes wrongly written Ver-mander, was of noble family, and was born at Meulebecke in Flanders in 1548. He may be described rather as a writer who painted than as a painter who wrote. ” He early discovered,” says one biographer, ” a lively genius for poetry and the belles lettres, and a decided disposition for painting ” ; and when we presently learn that he translated the Iliad and Odyssey, a great part of Virgil, and the Metamorphoses of Ovid, besides committing a great deal of poetry on his own account, and also writing the history of Dutch and Flemish painting from 1366 to 1604, we begin to estimate the value of the expression, ” a decided disposition for painting.”

Karel Van Mander was a man of education. He had wandered many years in many countries, in Flanders, at Vienna, and at Rome, at which last place he had spent several years in copying ancient works of art. He re-presents, indeed, the Italian ized Fleming of that day, and is the very reverse of Van Noort in all essential respects. He helped, it is said, his friend Spranger, who was engaged in some of the palaces of Rome at the time. But it is impossible on any showing to elevate Karel Van Mander above the level of a very third-rate artist. ” His pictures, which are rare, are poor enough,” says the notice which has already borne witness to his ” decided disposition for painting.”

In the year 1578 Van Mander, after his travels, had settled in Haarlem, and presently, finding, as we may suppose, that translating the classics into Dutch was no high-road to fortune, he started an ” Academy ” for painting in conjunction with Cornelis Cornelisz, or Cornelissen (1562-1637). It is said that these two men were joined later in their enterprise by Hendrik Goltzius the engraver (1558-1617), who did not himself take to painting till he was in his forty-first year, viz., 1599. And I am inclined to think that his share in the management of the ” Academy” did not commence in earnest until the disappearance of Van Mander from it in 1604.

Now all these three men were thoroughly imbued with the Italianizing spirit of which we have already spoken —Cornelissen, perhaps, the least of the three. The ” Academy ” was probably a ” life academy, life school, or public atelier,” something like those which exist in Paris at this moment, and it is highly probable that Van Mander did little more than, probably not nearly so much as, the average visiting maître of these latter establishments. Hals no doubt worked in the school, which was probably the only one of its kind in Haarlem, for the convenience of models, room, and artistic companionship. Karel Van Mander was, as we know, at the time within which Hals’ pupilage must have fallen, deeply engaged in his ” Schilderboek,” and indeed he retired for one whole year to Zevenbergen, where the book was finished. It is easy to guess that the ” teaching ” which Frans Hals was likely to have received from Van Mander was not of a very penetrating character. Indeed, I should be inclined to think that, of the two chief owners of the life school, Cornelis Cornelissen was the more likely man to have been seen frequently among the pupils. He was a respectable though very dull painter, who translated no Odysseys but stuck to his easel. He suffered from the same semi-classical Italian infection as Van Mander, and thereby spoiled in himself a tolerable Dutchman. But he was a sturdier and more absolute artist, and satisfied the plain Dutch desire for direct likeness and fully-clothed humanity sufficiently well to be chosen for at least one of the large company groups, which he executed with respectable propriety. As he wrote no books he was not in a position, as were Van Mander and his executors, to put forth any claim to Frans Hals as his pupil. But if any virtue at all went forth from the heads of that ” Academy ” to the strong young Dutchman, and I believe it at best to have been exceedingly little, then it is to Cornelissen rather than Van Mander that Frans Hals is most likely to have owed it.

But whatever may have been the impression made upon the young Hals by his two ” teachers,” Cornelissen and Van Mander, it is quite certain that at that time he made little or no impression upon them. It remained for the executors of Van Mander to discover his value in a second edition. If, as I venture to suggest, he was at that time already strong enough to stand by himself, already firmly set in the direction which had possibly been given to him by some earlier teacher of anti-Italian tendencies, and capable of impressing the boy with his own strong nature, then the explanation is not far to seek. The young man’s work aiming directly at the truth as he saw it, and re-fusing all the prettifyings and idealizings, the classicalities which Van Mander dealt in, would have naturally failed to commend itself to that master, who was probably incapable of appreciating the value of its direct strength and trenchant realism, when he passed, at intervals, the young man’s easel in the art academy of Haarlem. That Hals worked there, and worked to no small profit, I see no reason to doubt. There he could obtain the training and the discipline to be derived from the use of the nude model, and from that alone, for which, by the way, Cornelissen, though not Van Mander, was quite a competent guide; and the merely technical methods taught there were undoubtedly sound. It is thus and thus only that I would interpret the statement that Frans Hals was the pupil of Van Mander.

And this seems to be the convenient point at which to sum up briefly the theory which I venture to put forward as most consistent with the visible evidence of Frans Hals’ work, until further evidence, if such there ever be, shall set it aside. It runs thus: that Frans Hals during his Antwerp days worked in the studio of some Flemish master of the old national type, probably Van Noort; that he arrived at Haarlem already a capable student, and that he there worked in the public atelier of Karel Van Mander and Cornelis Cornelissen, but that he remained faithful to the principles which had been implanted in him by his earlier teaching, and which, fostered by his own individuality, and steadily adhered to in the face of other influences, produced the Frans Hals who was to found the, true Dutch school of painting.