FROM 1604 to 1614 the life of Frans Hals is a complete blank both as regards biographical notices of him and the evidence to be extracted from his own pictures. Neither source of evidence exists. Indeed it is not till 1616 that he comes before us in a really tangible shape with his first great company picture, The Feast of the Shooting Company of St.Joris (St. George). This gap, once more, can only be filled by the imagination, and by suggestion limited by probability.
It needs but to see the 1616 group to be assured that in art, at least, the man’s youth had been in no wise wasted. Here is the work of a man who is already an accomplished master of his craft. I have already in an earlier chapter pointed out the impossibility of supposing that this masterly performance had not been preceded by many works whose whereabouts we are now ignorant of. I need not recapitulate the argument. A study of the first St. Joris group, 1616 (for there is a second St. Joris group in the room, date 1627, and a third, 1639), in itself makes further argument unnecessary. The painter of this picture already had all the technical resources of his craft at his fingers’ ends, lacking only certain modes of seeing, certain revelations of atmosphere and harmony, and of the play of light on colour, which are not given even to the great ones during the years of youth with its stress and striving, its concentrated, breathless straining to its goal, but come only later in life, when the complete outlook upon art is quieter and more self-possessed. These were to be added, as they mostly are, later. Mean-while, for the present, we have a man who at the age of thirty-two to thirty-six is, at all points, master of his craft.
How the years had been spent we can perhaps conjecture. The mark of the man is on him alreadyTruth, absolute truth, to what he sees so far as he can get it, nothing imagined and nothing added or read into it. Likeness, in all thingsthat is to be the aim, from end to end of his life, of one of the greatest portrait-painters who ever lived; but it is to be likeness modified, or rather directed, by the special choice which marks the idiosyncrasy of the master. It is to be likeness, above all things, of the human face, but under the play of expression. His deliberately chosen aim in art is to represent the external play of features, as they express the varying emotions, but mainly the more ordinary ones of laughter, amusement, surprise, conceit, swagger; not, certainly, the most dignified, nor altogether the most worthy, but rather the most visible, and therefore, after all, those which a painter, whose office it is to paint what he sees with all the truth he can, may claim as a legitimate field, and in a certain sense the safest, since there is the less danger of his reading into themas several great portrait-painters have donethe emotions of his own character. And it was an empty field, also, till Frans Hals filled it empty still to this day, moreover, so far as any rivalry to Frans Hals is concerned. He holds it still without a second.
And this absolute truth in realizing the passing expression of the moment, but of a specially chosen moment, which Hals was apt to prefer, was supported by an equally vivid power of realizing the appearance of inanimate objects which have in one sense no expression to change, but in another sense change their expressions every moment under every change of light and every change of position either in themselves or in other objects. The truth with which Hals’ painting on a large scale represents all the accessories of his picture has, in its mastery of the rendering of the visible facts, no equal even in the more minute and apparently laborious technique of the later Dutchmen. He can paint you full size the pots and the vessels of the ” Schutters Maaltijd ” with as complete illusion as a Teniers or an Ostade. These accessories become secondary, not because they are realized with less importance, but because they are sent back to a secondary interest through the far superior interest of the living men. So, too, in the details of his sitter’s dress. He gives you with his superbly certain sweep of the brush a satin or a silk, a button or a chain, which Metzu or Van Mieris cannot give you so well with their microscopic exactness. How many studies of still life had he produced before he painted the trappings of that magnificent young swaggerer on the right of the first St. George’s group?