Frans Hals – The Boyhood At Antwerp

IT has seemed to be the method which should in the long run make most for clearness, that I should in the preceding chapter frankly state the case with regard to the difficulties in the early artistic career of Hals, before attempting to fill in the great blank with conjecture. The reader will thereby have understood that it is conjecture, founded on some probabilities and on a few asserted but unverified facts, by which alone we can hope to suggest the influences under which the man, who was destined to become one of the greatest of Holland’s painters, may have first opened his eyes upon art. It will save me, therefore, from loading my sentences with preliminary ” ifs,” and from much cumbrous restating of alternatives, if I am allowed to assume that Hals was born, as stated, in Antwerp between 158o and 1584, that he migrated to Haarlem, the ancient home of his family, about the year 1600, and that he was before the year 16o4 working for a longer or shorter period in the atelier kept by Karel Van Mander in that town.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, under what influences would a boy, whose natural trend was towards art, be likely to have come in Antwerp of that day? Who were the artists of the past whose work he would have been likely to see and to be inspired by? Who were the teachers, the working artists, the fellow-students of his present with whom he may have been brought in contact? Whether Frans Hals seriously adopted the profession of a painter early or late, it is absolutely certain, and we need waste no time in discussing such a point, that he must have been from the first keenly attracted towards art and artists; and the spell must have been cast over him in his boyish days at Antwerp. Let us try to put ourselves back into the position of a boy, with keen art sympathies, living in Antwerp, roughly speaking, from 1580 to 1600.

Who were the teachers in Antwerp at this time from whom Hals may possibly have received the first initiation into his art? We know the names of the three men under whom Peter Paul Rubens worked. Of the first of these, Tobie Verhaeght, we practically know so little that we need merely pause at his name. Neither is it at all probable that Otto Venius, the courtly, travelled, Italianized master with whom Rubens worked in the last few years of his studentship, had any share at all in the shaping of Frans Hals. But at the name of the third, Adam Van Noort, under whom Rubens worked for several years from about 1599, we find ourselves arrested.

Adam Van Noort had a better reputation as a teacher than as a man, though it is here again only fair to say that the brush of mere gossip has spread the darker colours far beyond their original edge. But there is an agreement in the main fact that he was a man of rough, strong, coarse-grained nature, a man of the people who, priding himself on that fact, seems, as is apt to happen, to have cultivated the less estimable traits of the people. He is described as having revolted Rubens by his coarseness and rudeness, until the latter sought, under Otto Venius, a more congenial atmosphere. But there is also an agreement that no better or more capable teacher than Adam Van Noort was to be found. At any rate Rubens put up with him for four years, though there is no particular reason to doubt that he did, in the end, leave him for the reason assigned. But it is easy to under-stand that what would have revolted the delicately nurtured, fastidious young Flemish page, just free from the courtly decencies of a great house, might have had little effect on the rougher nature of the other boy. It is perfectly possible that Hals may have received his first training at the hands of Van Noort, and it is, I am afraid, pretty certain that he would not have been greatly revolted by the outspokenness, on all subjects, of his master. It is perhaps hard on Van Noort to set down the suggestion which crosses one’s mind that the unpleasant features in Hal’s own career are not incompatible with an early training in a studio where the standard of convention and of respectability was not set high.

But there are features in Adam Van Noort’s position as an artist and a teacher which tell far more forcibly in favour of the suggestion that he is the most likely man of those who taught in Antwerp to have given its first direction to the art of Frans Hals. Van Noort was in-deed a great influence in the art of the day. Besides the four years spent by Rubens in his studio—years which probably gave to him, and kept for him afterwards, just so much as remained native Flemish in his art, after it had been sunburnt in the air of Italy—besides that great pupil, a reputation in himself, we find that Van Noort had under him at different times the painters Jordaens (who married his daughter), Sebastian Vranckz, and Van Balen. Through the latter he became the grandfather in art of Van Dyck and of Snyders. Adam Van Noort’s standpoint as an artist was as downright and determined, as bluff and as direct, as national and uncompromising, as his speech and manners and tastes were said to be. He was a sturdy opponent of the Italianizing tide which was threatening to soften away out of Flemish art all that was distinctively individual in it. He had never been one of those who had joined the colony in Rome, and who had come back neither Flemish nor Italian. He had stuck to Antwerp all his days—perhaps to his pipes and his pots there. He had sought his models in his native town, we are told, and painted the men of his choice after the sight of his eyes. Fromentin, in that most suggestive book, ” Les Maîtres d’autrefois,” speaks1 of a work which he had seen by Adam Van Noort; he gives no clue to its identity, and I can only therefore quote the opinion as it stands. But he speaks of it as a very characteristic picture, and he describes qualities in it which are very suggestive when we think of them in possible connection with Frans Hals. He speaks of Van Noort as a painter who loved forcible accents, showy colours, strong high lights on somewhat powerful tones. He had a sort of fashion of striking the canvas and placing on it rather a tone than a form. He spared no high light where it could be obtained, on forehead, temples, enamel of the eyes, edges of the eyelids. And, above all, Fromentin mentions his manner of rendering the glistening moisture of the flesh, as if on a hot day, by using much red contrasted with brilliant white, so that he gave to all his personages the look of a certain vigorous activity, and, so to say, ” an air of being in a perspiration.” Now this last singular criticism becomes very remarkable when we remember that this very trait is seen in several of Frans Hals’ portraits, notably in that of the man in the National Gallery, who is obviously painted at a moment after exertion, the red streak on the forehead still showing where the hat has been.

Now one is at once struck by the points of resemblance between the recorded traits of the teacher Van Noort and the known traits of his possible pupil Frans Hals. The art of the men, and the whole characteristics of that art, seem to run strikingly on the same lines. There is in Hals the same wholly individual aim in art, the same championing of a national style and subject, the same scorn—at times almost brutal scorn—of all foreign-born refinements and softenings. And if Hals worked in any studio at all in Antwerp, and surely he must have, then I suggest that there is no name which carries with it so much likelihood as that of Adam Van Noort.

A few important birth-dates :

Michel Jans Mierevelt 1567 Jan Van Ravesteyn 1572 or 1580 (Peter Paul Rubens 1577 Frans Hals 1580 ? Adriaen Brouwer 1605 ? Rembrandt 1607 Gerard Ter Borch 1608 Adriaen Van Ostade 1610 Bartholomeus Van der Helst 1613 Gerard Dou 1613 Jan Havicks Steen 1625 Gabriel Metsu 1630 Nicolaas Maes 1632 jan Ver Meer 1632 Pieter de Hoogh 1632 Frans Van Mieris 1635