Frans Hals – The Last Two “regenten” Pictures 1664

THE last two pictures of the great series at Haarlem, representing respectively the five men Regenten of the old men’s almshouse and the five women Regentessen of the same, have a singularly pathetic interest. It is difficult to criticise them in cold blood. One is almost compelled to view them through the mists that had gathered round the old man’s life.

Hals was sixty-one when in 1641 he had painted the great Regenten picture which we looked at together in the last chapter. Twenty-three years had passed when, at the age of eighty-four, and in 1664, he painted the last two of the series. They had been the downhill years of the old man’s life. The chapter on his biography will have told the reader of his troubles—self-begotten or no, matters little for our purpose. So early as 1641 we have seen him in arrear, apparently, of his subscription to the Guild of Saint Lucas. In 1652, the painter being then seventy-two, came the distress warrant which Jan Ykess the baker obtained against him. The inventory of the goods which, on that occasion, were held in pledge, is still preserved at Haarlem. Three mattresses and bolsters with their appurtenances; an armoire; an oak-table and five pictures. If that is all there was, there was meagre comfort in that home. No mention is made of any easels, or canvases, or other artistic plant; from which one may guess that either the law of Holland had that merciful reserve whereby a distress warrant may not include the tools with which the workman earns his living, or else, and more probably, because Frans Hals was still struggling on with his teaching studio elsewhere, and kept such plant as he possessed in that and not in the living room.

It was in the spring of 1664 that the municipality had granted to Hals the gift of a load or two of peat fuel and the pension of 200 Carolus gulden a year; and in the light of that kindly alms-gift one can read pretty plainly that these two Regenten pictures were a charity commission—a wise way of help to the old man which has had the effect of benefiting many more people than were thought of then. They complete for us the survey of an entire career, not, it is true, seen year after year in unbroken continuity, but intercepted for us at intervals. It is for us to attempt, and to some extent we are able to do this, to fill in the gaps later by reference to the portraits, fairly numerous, which are scattered in twos and threes and sixes about the various museums of Europe.

The first Regenten picture was painted in 1641, and stands very nearly halfway between the 1616 Doelen picture and these 1664 groups. For our purpose we may indeed consider it the halfway house of Frans Hals’ artistic career, so far as its evidences are left to us. And it marks off a period, with tolerable nearness, of the greatest importance to those who are ready to take trouble enough to understand the whole career. We have several times already indicated the tendency on Prans Hals part to eliminate gradually, so far as it was open to him, the positive and more violent elements of colour, till he reduces himself to the harmonies which can be obtained from the blacks and whites and grays, modulated and toned by the play of light, and still more by the reducing effect of half-light and of shadow. We have seen him trying to effect this by the gradual softening down of strong contrast, such as he had used in his first Doelen group, down to the great St. George’s group of 1639. It had been, in spite of himself, an unsuccessful struggle, for so long as burghers will insist on turning out on feast days in brilliant black velvet with rasping tawny-orange scarves, so long must the unhappy artist suffer for the discord. But the steady change which had come over Hals in his manner of seeing colour is, in spite of these enforced discrepancies, quite distinctly to be traced even in his treatment of the accessories of his pictures.

But in his handling of flesh colour the change of practice is even more certainly to be followed. It has been from the first growing steadily lower in tone, and, above all, in the flesh shadows he has been passing down through warmish flesh grays to pure grays, and into almost absolute blacks—the latter, when he reaches it, being indeed an idiosyncrasy carried on almost to crime. At no period of Hals’ career—unless it may have been in that Antwerp or earliest Haarlem period whose evidences are a blank to us—had he ever used for his flesh shadows that warm red transparent flesh colour which Rubens and Van Dyck habitually use, in which one seems to see the warm blood shining up through the translucent flesh. If the reader will go and study, for instance, a genuine unrestored hand which Rubens or Van Dyck painted, he will at once see the difference which Frans Hals even in his early days presents. The fingers of a Rubens portrait are divided from one another by warm, transparent, juicy lines of separation. The same lines in a Hals portrait, where the hands are visible, are even in his earliest works a warm gray. Up to the year 1639, in which he painted his great portrait of Madame Van der Meer (Van der Hoop Collection, Amsterdam), this method of handling flesh shadows has only undergone such change that it assumes a somewhat greener tint amongst the gray, and where the sitter is old, as in that case, it does not offend against the possibilities of flesh colour. Indeed, you have to be on the look-out for it to see it, so entirely is the characteristic carried away by the superb reality and masterly artistry of the picture as a whole.

But after the year 1641, in which he painted his first Regenten group, the onward change from grays to almost blacks (occasionally) is so distinct and so rapid that I know of no recognized change of style in the career of any of the great artists which can be asserted with so much safety and timed so definitely within its dates.

In fact, after 1641, it will be found that not only did he never again employ any positive or vivid colour whatever in the accessories of his portraits, and, indeed, hardly ever anything which we call colour, even subdued colour, at all; but his flesh tones become much lower, and, above all, the flesh shadows duskier and tending to blackness. At first this last trait is not so strongly pronounced, but as we get farther onwards from the year 1641 the tendency increases, and in one or two extreme instances, especially the Professor Jan Hornebeek of the Brussels Gallery (1645), the René Descartes of the Louvre, the HilleBobbe (1650), and the Tyman Oosdorp (1656) of the Berlin Gallery, flesh shadows are in places absolutely black.

This statement can be tested with tolerable ease. If the reader will turn to the list of portraits painted by Frans Hals after 1641, and will, as he visits the various galleries which contain them, direct his attention to the point, he will find that every picture on the list will bear out the statement, presenting the feature with more or less distinctness, though not always to the same aggravated extent.

He was working from that date (1641) with a very restricted palette—the result, no doubt, of deliberate preference, but not wholly inconvenient also to him, when viewed in the light of his probably strained relations with his colourman. I believe that the examination of all these later pictures after 1641 by any experienced artist would give the following as Frans Hals’ palette: Black, white, yellow ochre, a red, a blue—cheap colours, probably, though good and sound, as the condition of his pictures proclaims. The luxuries of lakes and carmines had been long left behind. We shall have to see the brilliant results which he got out of this limited palette when we have to consider some of the individual portraits. It would be inconvenient to step aside to do this now.

Commissions had for many years been few and far between. From 1655 to 1660 there are only some six portraits or so to speak to with certainty. Of these several are apparently casual sitters, cheap commissions, paying, it may be supposed, a very few dollars beyond the price of paint and canvas. The Man in the Slouch Hat, for instance, of the Cassel Gallery, 1660, was, I take it, not a highly-paid performance for all its magnificent dexterity. The two commissions of 1664, coming as they did on the top of the present of peat fuel and of the parish pension, must have been a godsend to the poverty-stricken old couple.

The five old men Regents are on the whole painted with more signs of weakness than the five women Regents. The handling seems to totter. One cannot claim for them in one or two cases that the likenesses seem any longer convincing. Yet Hals never did anything more wholly desirable than the head of the serving-man seen in half-tone on the upper extreme right. The picture indeed, as a piece of tone, fascinates one the more the longer one looks at it. One forgives, sympathizes with, pities all the signs of failing power, for there is over it all that inexpressible stamp of largeness which makes the failing hand of a great one more impressive than the most vigorous activities of a less one. And, indeed, there are passages in the picture where the word failure may be flung aside with little fear. The handling of the black and of the white in the right-hand figure is one of those delicious bits of mere paint that you are ready to look at and en-joy when you have exhausted the deeper essences of a picture. There is only one bit of colour in the picture, a subdued and smoky patch of red on the knee of that same figure. It helps the blacks of the figures in that corner of the painting.

The group of old women Regents, as I have said, is, so far as strength of portraiture goes, distinctly a stronger effort, and it is less open to criticism on the score of drawing, though, on the other hand, it lacks the breadth and unity of vision of the old men Regents. The rendering of the hands, for example, not only does not fail to express its meaning; it gives, on the contrary, very great expression of character to the various sitters. The whole thing is indeed a fine piece of reading on the old painter’s part. These five old ladies, so grimly respectable, so austerely benevolent, so reproachfully prim and well-kept, must have been no small terror to their defaulting sisters who appeared before them—as possibly Mrs. Hals had done-on a charge of poverty., Hals probably felt their terror himself. There is something in his interpretation of these wonderful old dames that calls out the old humour of the man—some memory of the old magic with which he once went straight to the character of his laughing cavalier, his lute-playing jester, his cackling old fishwife. They -are very stiff and starched, these old ladies, as they sit bolt up in all the pride of their rectitude and their good housewifery; but they are alive and real. They have, as I think most who know the picture will feel, the quality of making you remember them long after you are away from them. Even amongst the unforgetable portraits which Hals painted in his earlier days, I hardly know one which stays with one more vividly than that of the prim old dame on the right of this picture. Certainly a wonderful performance for a man of eighty-four, and one which was possible only to a great artist. It was to be his last achievement, completing the great series in the Museum of Haarlem, so typical from one end to the other both of the artist’s life and the man’s life, beginning with the young man rejoicing in his strength, in the feasting and the revelry, seen with clear, defiant eyes with his life still in front of him, and ending in the vision of the poorhouse seen with eyes that have learnt everything now about the half-lights and the shadows, and painted with the hand that has not lost its cunning, but has lost the physical power that would enforce it.

If it be true that pathos and humour lie very close to one another, then I know of no instance where the conjunction may be observed so well as in this great series in the Rathaus at Haarlem. There are few, moreover, before which an artist will linger with more inevitable delight.