Frans Hals – The First Doelen Group (St. Joris), 1616

THE first of Hals’ great pictures, the Doelen, or Shooting Company, group of 1616, is the picture which faces one first, after mounting the staircase in the Town Hall at Haarlem. In the same room there are, in all, five of these great shooting company pictures, besides three smaller though still large groups, containing five persons in each, of ” regenten,” or controllers of the hospitals or almshouses for old folk. These pictures range from 1616 to 1661, and show the man to us at intervals, often too long intervals, indeed, of his career.

It is necessary before examining these works in detail to say a word or two as to the origin and scope of these shooting guilds or companies—” Doelen,” as the Dutch word has it. Remembering of course that they originated at a time when there were no standing armies, and also at a time when the trade guilds were still in their full force, we shall easily understand that they stood to military service in the same relation as the trade guild stood to the trade which it protected and regulated, and as the art guilds—St. Luke’s at Haarlem, for example—to the various arts whose interests they watched over. These shooting clubs—originally archers’ clubs—arquebusiers’ clubs in the days of Hals—composed of course entirely of volunteers, formed an invaluable nucleus and rallying-point for national defence in any great emergency. They had proved their value during the last forty years against the Spaniards in Holland. They provided at such a time a ready-made organization, which could at once be enlarged to include all those who were ready to serve as volunteers for their country.

In times of peace these guilds, or volunteer companies, naturally took on them a more social complexion. They held annual shooting competitions both amongst their members and with other companies and other towns, se-curing thereby a certain standard of national efficiency with the arquebus. They had an occasional march out, or other form of visible parade. Above all they dined, as do all self-respecting societies in all countries, frequently and with thoroughness. From time to time, moreover, and this is chiefly to our purpose, the officers of the guild decided to have their portraits painted in large groups, which were presented to the guild and hung on the walls of their meeting hall. These pictures were paid for, apparently, in most cases, not out of the funds of the guild, but by a private subscription among the officers, arranged on a sliding scale which doubtless varied with circumstances, but which roughly may be supposed to have corresponded with the degrees of rank. An examination of the many groups which still exist in Holland bears out this view. The colonels and the captains occupy the most conspicuous positions, and are nearly always presented full face to the spectator, in the forefront of the picture. The rest, always in view, for he who paid his money might claim that, had to be content with slightly less conspicuous positions, three-quarter face perhaps (actual side-face was rare, and probably little tolerated by the sitter), but still conspicuous enough that all the world should know him. The one tit-bit of colour which does seem to have been actually reserved to the artist for his special artistic use was the ensign of each particular corps. This office was usually held by some young member of a rich family. He was, we may judge from the evidence of our eyes, apt to indulge his fancy in the way of dress, and he was generally the ” waterfly ” of the party. And since, as a man of wealth, he had probably paid a share of the expense out of proportion to his rank, he could, if required, be placed in a very conspicuous position without offence to the higher ranks. He was, in fact, one of the more moveable pieces on the chess-board, and could be used by the artist as an artistic resource. Mercifully for art, the guilds did not wear a set uniform, each officer going as he pleased, although it must be admitted that this was not an unmixed advantage to the painter, who found himself compelled to paint costumes, in which the owners happened to fancy themselves, in a juxtaposition which was almost fatal to harmony.

In fact, the painting of these Doelen groups in a manner which should satisfy the personal vanity of fourteen or fifteen persons at a time, and should also satisfy the requirements of a really good picture, was a matter which was beset with complications. The older painters, as well as most of the later, followed a simple tradition which relieved them to some extent of the personal difficulty. They set the figures more or less all in a row, and as far as possible full face, or now and then in two long rows. There is a painful and visible attempt in these to get variety out of monotony by placing the bodies sideways beneath the full-faced heads, which have only too obviously in many cases been painted first on to the long canvases, and are, pretty evidently, faithful though dull likeneses. That the Doelen groups should follow this kind of general plan was a fixed tradition of Dutch art, and it was a tradition, moreover, from which the portrait-painter could hardly hope to escape, and as a matter of fact never did escape.

Hals accepted, on the whole, the traditions of the task, extremely arduous as they were, and, keeping within those very cramping limitations, he did his best to pro-duce a great set of portraits and a great picture. When we remember what the difficulties were which he had to face, the success is beyond dispute. The defects are generally those which are absolutely inseparable from the conditions which were imposed upon him, and they could not have been escaped except by a deliberate breaking with those conditions. There was another painter who was at the very same moment, in the neighbouring town of the Hague, facing exactly the same problems with equal honesty—Jan Van Ravesteyn, a man perhaps some seven years older than Frans Hals. He painted his first great group at the Town Hall of the Hague in the year in which Hals painted his first Doelen picture of St. George (1616), and many of his later groups in the same place cover much the same period as the series by Hals at Haarlem. Ravesteyn escapes from his task with more credit than most who faced it, being indeed a very excellent painter. Ravesteyn deserves credit, and his example is valuable, as one who was simultaneously with Hals trying to in-spire life into the dead bones of group painting. He succeeded quite tolerably, but he was not a Hals. He failed to equal him merely because he had not equal genius.

As one stands before the first great Doelen group by Hals at Haarlem, The St. George’s Company at Dinner (1616), the impression which one at once receives may be summed up in the single word—Force. There is force in every inch of the huge canvas from one end to the other. It is the work of a painter rejoicing in his strength, and fully assured of it, and making the fullest use of this his first opportunity of showing it. The picture has been slightly cleaned and revarnished, in 1899 or 1900, and is in a wonderfully fine state of preservation. The figures, twelve in number, are dispersed about a table spread with plates and dishes and covered with a white linen table-cloth. In the front, and almost in the centre, sits the colonel, full face to the spectator, his figure sideways, his right arm akimbo, his left holding a beaker of wine. There is no instance among the later groups by Hals where a single figure is given quite so dominant a position. There are three more figures on the extreme right who are also in front of the table, one of these being the magnificent young ensign. On the left of the picture an extremely fine group of three sitting figures occupies the end of the table, and on the far side of the table, three sitting and two standing, are the remaining figures of the group. One of these is the second ensign, who, with his flag (a most lovely passage of colour) half folded and aslant across his shoulder, helps to break up the open space of the window. The prevailing hue of the dresses is black, and the sashes are red.

If we analyze the composition, we shall get here, at the very threshold, an insight into the general principle which Hals follows throughout in his endeavours to master this problem. He has to deal, remember, with oblong spaces, whose length is often very great in proportion to the breadth This shape in itself compels him to the use of an arrangement which is apt to produce painfully stiff rows of figures. Moreover, as already explained, the possible wrath of his sitters forbids him to obtain variety by sending any of them too far back into the room, or using any devices which would have deprived each owner of a face of a fair degree of prominence. His method stands declared in this first picture, and will be found to repeat itself with more or less similarity in all the larger Doelen pictures. He either places groups of three or four figures at intervals, uniting them by intermediate figures, or he disperses along the length of his picture single figures of special interest, uniting them by figures thrown more or less together into groups. Of the first method the first picture (1616) is the best example; of the second method perhaps the best example is the great picture in the Rijks Museum at Amsterdam of Reynier Reael’s company, which Hals designed and in large part executed, and which Pieter Codde finished.

To return now to the 1616 Doelen group. The great strength of the picture in every part—it is painted from corner to corner up to full concert pitch—impresses itself upon the spectator immediately. It is the easiest of all the series to remember, hardly that which is best worth remembering. Every figure is given not only its full value, but often a good deal more than its full value. The picture is over-full of what a photographer would call definition. The figures detach themselves with almost equal assertion whether they be in the first plane or the second plane of the group. The central figure, sitting there in his too too solid flesh, is indeed an astonishing bit of detachment; but if he be compared with the figures across the table, it will be found that they go back only through the linear perspective, not by any aerial perspective. They are, in spite of their rearward position, painted each one up to full strength. There is little or no atmosphere, little or no blending of the figures with their surroundings. The figures come out of the picture at you, and you do not feel as if there were any air round about them. As portraits, they are real, tangible, convincing.

Frans Hals is not, of course, the only painter by a great many whose early achievement presents this same characteristic. It is an easy and natural explanation that he had not yet attained to a knowledge which was later to be added to him. And the explanation must be admitted, on any showing, to be in part of weight. Unquestionably the earlier works have not quite the same atmosphere as his later. But in the case of the 1616 group, I believe that one may call in a different explanation. An analysis of the means employed by Hals—an analysis, I fear, which one can only make, and can only understand, in presence of the picture itself—will, I think, reveal an astonishing amount of artistic artifice and consummate knowledge, though not used as he would have liked to use it if he had dared. He is wrestling with his commercial conditions and endeavouring to bring them into some sort of line with artistic conditions, and he can best do that by a bold and deliberate violation of some of these latter conditions. He sins, in fact, of parti pris, not of ignorance; and what is more, if he had endeavoured to carry out to the full the artistic conditions as he knew them, he would in other directions have unquestionably fallen short of many more of his conditions. He chose the lesser evil.

his table and its equipments recede, as he ought to have done, and knew, in a sense, that he ought, and if he had avoided his violent contrast between the black silks of the forward figures and the brilliant white of his table-cloth, then presently he would have found himself in this predicament : that having duly subordinated these details to the foremost figures, by giving to them their truer pictorial value—atmosphere, in a word-then he must either have given his rearmost figures still further pictorial subordination—which was contrary to contract and commercially unsound—or else, having given his intermediate details, table and coverings as aforesaid, their due subordination, he would have had the figures behind these receding details, standing there in the same full strength as his foremost figures—a pictorial monstrosity. He chose the lesser evil, and attempted to lessen it by a masterly device, which, though it fails to be completely satisfactory, yet fails less hopelessly than any other compromise would have done.

The colour of the picture again gives one the impression —most critics have felt this—of being somewhat reddish. Some have seen in this the influence of Van Mander. I will not repeat my views on the influence of Van Mander on Frans Hals. To me a different cause is quite sufficient. The necessity or supposed necessity for painting each burgher up to full strength, coupled with Hals’ intense desire for reality of likeness, certainly produces an amount of red in the flesh colours of these hale and healthy freshly-dined burghers, which, unsoftened by atmosphere, and brought out in strong contrast with the brilliant whites of the ruffs, does undoubtedly leave an impression of an over-ruddy tone. The scarlet of the sashes, again—presumably Hals had no choice here—against the black of the doublets, spreads a succession of red notes about the picture. It must be admitted that the colour resulting from these facts is not altogether pleasant. But I see in it once more the result of falsified conditions, and not the baneful influence of poor old Van Mander, who, however, has nothing to complain of if, his executors having claimed him as Hals’ teacher, his memory is called in to account for his pupil’s defects.

Before we leave the 1616 Doelen group, there is one small detail in it to which I should like to draw attention. With Hals’ position as a colourist we shall have often to deal as we go on. We shall find at the last that, denying to himself almost all positive colour, and leaving aside all in that kind, he was content to obtain his triumphs out of low-toned harmonies of subdued colour, and mostly out of black and gray and white. Here in this 1616 picture there is one passage of tender and delicious colour such as Velazquez might have delighted to own to. It is in the folded flag of the ensign, which crosses the window in the middle of the picture. The colours are dove gray, and silver, and pale crimson, harmonized as none but a truly great colourist knows how. And the eye, wearied with the high pressure of the rest of this great master-piece of forceful painting, rests on that detail in peace and gratitude.