Frans Hals – Character Portraits Of All Periods

I HAVE already expressed the opinion, which, I believe, must inevitably result to anyone who has viewed the life of Frans Hals as a consistent whole, and realized the one aim of his chief artistic purpose, which presently absorbed all others, that we must regard him even in his so-called genre pictures always as a portrait-painter, always as one whose prevailing thought was the vivid presentment of a face at a given moment under a transient expression. And in this respect, though his brilliant realizations of commonplace and sometimes vulgar facial expression did undoubtedly give the start to those many Dutch painters who lived after him, and are sometimes called by the clumsy title “the genre painters,” yet he differs entirely from them in this, that he is always first and foremost portrait-painter, never a subject-painter who merely uses a model. As I have already pointed out, these ” genre pictures ” of jesters, gipsies, mountebanks, topers, go pari passu all along his career with his graver portraits. They were necessary to him because, as I have already said, no man pays for his portrait to be painted while he grins at a half-empty pot, or leers up at a half-open casement. If Hals was to paint these subjects, which had the greatest attraction for him be-cause they gave him his chances of rendering the human face in action, he must pay them, or reward them in some shape, or attract them by his talk and his jokes in studio or pothouse to act as his models. This is the real distinction between the one class of portrait and the other. His aim, however, was the same in both-absolute realization of a likeness.

In the Rijks Museum at Amsterdam hangs an admirable old copy, said to be by Dirk Hals, of an original in the possession of Baron Gustav Rothschild.. This is the Jester, Fool, Mandolin Player, Lute Player—he appears under different names. The copy has every appearance of being faithful, the only visible shortcoming being in the left hand, which is heavy and overloaded and has gone wrong. It is unsafe to criticise colour from a copy. no matter how excellent—and it is best, therefore, to for-bear. But the rendering of facial expression by the copyist may here be fully trusted, and, moreover, may be understood quite fully by an appeal to the reproduction. It is interesting to mention that an old tradition has it that this is a portrait of the artist’s pupil, Adriaen Brouwer. But, whoever be the original, it is quite impossible to stand before the picture without feeling assured that it is a portrait to the life of someone. Perhaps in the whole range of art there is nothing more convincingly lifelike. It is nothing to the point for us to inquire, was this thing worth the doing? was there no finer subject on which to expend this astounding force? It is no-thing to the point to say that the motive is trivial, and that the fellow and his chansons were probably vulgar.

That is apt to be the way of the jester and of the strolling musician, no doubt, whether he is met with at Haarlem or at Henley. We need not be at pains to claim that the Fool of Frans Hals, or the Buffoon of Velazquez, or the Pierrots of Watteau, are exalted subjects. We have to be content with the art that has raised even these into the region of classics. It is only necessary to think what these subjects may and have become in the hands of the trivial, to make one look at this impudent, rascally Jester of Frans Hals’ with something of the respect that we feel for a Touchstone or a Launcelot Gobbo. Each is a masterpiece of his kind. And each becomes a living being unforgetable when once you have made his acquaintance. There lies the test of the artist’s power as a creator.

No less-intimate and unerring is his seizure of the expression, not quite so momentary and far more pleasing, in his magically brilliant sketch of a gipsy, La Bohémienne, in the Louvre—a model possibly caught at some strolling show at Haarlem. I call it a sketch advisedly. The artist who examines it closely—and it is for artists, above all others, a morsel which they cannot afford to pass by-will assert with me that the fact is written on every inch. It is thinly and lightly, but firmly painted, with a very full and very liquid brush-almost like a very fluid but solid water-colour, if such a thing could be—each tone brought up to the other and overlapping; but set there once, and once for all, with absolute knowledge and certainty, no afterthoughts, no changes, no happy accidents. It is all seen unerringly, touched unerringly. So she was, for that hour or two, so she was painted for that hour or two, and so she was left. And it has all that delicious freshness and charm which belong to a first sketch before nature of a great artist, and belong to that alone. But the sketches of most men, even the greatest, for all their freshness and deliciousness, are tentative, experimental, demanding concession and even forgiveness on the part of the sympathizer as compared with this sketch by Hals. There is nothing, in the way of technique or from the point of view of the artist, to forgive or to have to under-stand. It is at once a fresh, first-thought sketch, and a complete and finished picture—if indeed the true definition of finish in a picture is the moment beyond which every added touch is a loss.

In this portrait of the poor gipsy girl, handsome, happy-go-lucky, good-natured hussy that she is, I find once more in Hals a sympathy for his subject which goes far beyond the mere painter’s desire, of which he is so often accused, to paint on to a canvas in imitation of a human face, and to show how brilliantly he can do it. She is slatternly, careless and free, and Hals gives you all that. But he tells you a little more about the merry-looking creature than that, and what he tells you makes you sympathize. She is greatly amused-thinks, indeed, that it is the best joke that has happened to her for a long time-that she should have her portrait painted. The smile on her face is quite irrepressible—at any moment it will burst into a laugh, and it is so full of naturalness that you know you will have to laugh with her whenever she does. It is more catching than, though of course not so subtle as, the unfathomable smile with which Lisa la Gioconda looks out at you from the canvas of Lionardo. The one, indeed, is the smile of sheer good temper and animal spirits, and it calls out in you something of the same sort of feeling; the other is the expression of some set of thoughts deep within which makes you, too, look inwards and smile, you don’t know why : and there is magic in either; and yet how different are the means which produced the one, and the means which produced the other: as different indeed as the men themselves, as Hals and Lionardo; as different as La Bohémienne her-self and Lisa la Gioconda. At Antwerp we find Hals again in sympathy with another phase of life in his rendering of the fisher-boy, known as The Sandlooper. The picture is hardly one of his best on any showing, but it is worth pausing at, because, apart from the vigour and summarized knowledge of its handling, it reveals a certain sympathy with the lot of the peasant which is too often absent from Dutch painters as a whole, who generally seemed to sympathize with them, because some of them boozed conveniently in alehouses where pots and pans and other picturesque belongings abounded. Here in the sunburnt, rather earnest, stupid face of the open-mouthed lad, in the eyes bloodshot with wind and sand, one has the rudiments of that sympathetic insight into the life itself of the peasant which was, however, not destined, in that century, to go much further either with Hals or his followers. There is a certain rude pathos in the picture which reminds one that there was in Dutch peasant life a healthier,worthier, and more pathetic side than Brouwer, Ostade, or Jan Steen had it in them to see.

And between this and the Hille Bobbe of Berlin, 1650, there lie a number of ” merry topers” and charlatans, notably the mountebank of Cassel, and ” playing boys,” which, in varying degrees, exhibit the dexterity of the man. It has already been said, and will have to be repeated more in detail in a later chapter, that after 1641 Hals more and more abandoned the use of positive colour, and as he did so more and more fell into the use of grayish, dusky, and finally black shadows. The well-known Hille Bobbe is at once an example of the astonishing dexterity which he had attained—and not lost at the age of seventy—of setting down a passing expression, and also an example of the extreme to which he had allowed himself to go in the use of black upon flesh colour.

Hille Bobbe was a fishwife of Haarlem, and it would seem-I confess that my historical researches into her personality are extremely superficial-a noted character in her day. Something in the look of the old hag one day seems to have tickled Frans Hals, and he sets her down with ruthless reality there and then in a sketch so rapid and so summary that one may, by the sabre-like black slashes on the background at the side of her head, tell the very size of the brushes which he used (he seems to have used tools of a medium size, not the very largest, as we might have expected). Colours are scarce and precious to poor Frans at that date; he has few at hand. Black and white and yellow ochre and blue and red, no-thing more, and one wishes he had left out all but the black and white, and given it us without any colour but what we could have suggested to ourselves. Then these absolutely black shadows on the flesh, even on the very old and bloodless flesh of the poor old fishfag, would have stood no need of forgiveness. But as a piece of slashing, instantaneous execution, a superb snapshot with brushes and colour, nothing can go far beyond it. It is done—you may see it in every single brushmark—at lightning speed. ” Careless, hasty, reckless work,” it, and other of Hals’ work of the date, has been called. Nothing of the kind. It is careful-the care of extreme, though habitual, tension and breathless concentration—the sort of care which a first-rate game-shot uses, and which seems like a kind of jugglery to the looker-on. It is fully considered, each almost shapeless touch. I t is calculated, every splash of it, and never hasty or reckless, though always at full speed. The best-and Hals’ best was good—he could do in the time; and the time was, one’s instinct tells one, limited by Hille Bobbe’s patience; and that, one’s instinct says again, was in its turn limited by the depth of the pewter of schnapps which she holds in her withered old hand.

However much we may lament that Hals allowed so many of his artistic senses to become atrophied as he advanced in life, we must at least allow to him a rare singleness of purpose in the development of that one sense which above all others he valued, the sense of direct seeing and of unflinching expression of what he saw. He did at least look his soul, such as it was, in the face all along his life, and the one he had was at least his own and never someone else’s at second hand. Poor Hals certainly followed his star, whithersoever it should lead. It led him, indeed, to poverty, for the evidence is plain enough that the art of Hals was never really popular, and that by 1645 he had ceased to be fashionable, and that by 1650 he was out in the cold.

Hals was indeed no great thinker, and no moralist. He was not a man with a mission—probably did not re-cognize the existence of such a thing in art. But one may claim for him, as one has claimed before, that he painted up to the very end as his artist instinct showed him, and, above all, that he did not step aside, even when the fuel was lowest in the house of Hals and the pot most needed boiling, to any of those unseemlinesses which were more and more the fashion of the painters who supplanted him.