Frans Hals – The Later Portraits

THAT Frans Hals, after the year 1641, began to fall into a habit of using dusky and sooty shadows, both for his flesh tones and for his details, has already been several times set forth. A careful following of all his works painted after that date will show that the habit increased upon him, until he was ready, in some of his works, to use positive black. Very gladly would I spare both myself and the reader the task of analyzing any more portraits, if it were possible to do so without a serious sin of omission. But the period—comprising the last twenty-five years of the painter’s career—is of the greatest importance, including as it does works which, while they show him to us at times in his least pleasing phase, also display him at the height of his unrivalled dexterity. It was during this last dark period of his that his most astounding feats of rapid handling were per-formed. For the wonder of his technique seemed to in-crease in proportion as he freed himself from the problems of colour, and indeed of many another problem which was left on one side in pursuit of his single aim. Gradually he had laid aside all use of positive hues, and by 1645 he had almost ceased to think in colour at all.

It was in that year that he painted a picture, now to be seen in the gallery at Brussels, which is for the blackness of its shadows an extreme though typical instance. This is the portrait of one Jan Hornebeek of Utrecht, a professor (” Hooglaerer “) of Leyden, a man of most un-pleasing and sensual face. He was of very black complexion, and, being shaven after the fashion of professors in that day and place, the blackness of the flesh tones is doubtless proper to the original. But Hals goes at his task with a preconceived intention of blackness. The inky shadows beside the hair, at the throat, at the wrists, and even between the fingers, all add to the unpleasant impression of what must have been a singularly uncaptivating personality. But the reality of the picture is unmistakeable, and the ferocious veracity with which every-thing is set down—one gets the idea from it that Hals was by no means in love with the sanctimonious-looking sensual sitter—makes this disagreeable piece of painting a real tour de force. It is Hals at his full force, one might almost say at his full violence.

Remembering the rule that, relatively to his men sitters at any period, his women are painted with reserve and restraint, one is not surprised that in an elderly woman’s portrait in the Louvre, painted in 1650, he is, in spite of the blackness of his shadows and the duskiness of his flesh tints, nearer to his earlier self once more. The portrait hangs (1901) in the same room as La Bohémienne, and the pair make together an interesting object-lesson in the style of the man. This portrait under consideration is of a woman not of the higher class—probably a servant of some sort, to judge by the dress and, above all, by the hard horny fingers of the hands. The character is as simply and finely seen and realized as ever and the picture is full of masterly but restrained power. You do not have to forgive this portrait for the sake of its fine technique. It makes no such demand upon you.

In the same year, 1650, as this comparatively sedate portrait of a Dutch housekeeper came, it will be remembered, the Hille Bobbe of Berlin, in which Hals let himself loose with all the ferocity which quite legitimately belongs to the subject. A comparison of these two subjects will once more emphasize the fact that he did vary his treatment with the character; and even the sex-for Hille Bobbe was not of the womanly order—of his sitters.

From this date to the end the pictures by Hals are sadly few in number-Tyman Oosdorp at Berlin (1656), two or three men’s portraits in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, and a few others, complete the tale. These all in varying degrees, present the same features, the same unhesitating, slashing rapidity of technique with the same disregard for subtleties of flesh colour, though not for its modelling and its relative tones. As you go to one of these portraits you receive always the same warning to keep your distance—fourteen feet at least. The wild chaos of zigzags and transverse strokes of the hogs’ brush admit of no close inspection except for purpose of analysis. But go back to where he meant you to see them from-it is very easy to determine that—and this wild confusion settles down into the most convincing reality, not only of character, but also of mere texture, velvet, or silk or satin, linen or cambric or lace. You still find yourself complaining, perhaps, that you do not like his black shadows or his bloodless flesh tones. Hals replies to you from his picture that he doesn’t mind whether you enjoy them or not. He was not thinking of your enjoyment or of anyone else’s; for Hals, wilful from the beginning, was still as much of his own mind now, when the evil days were on him and there was no fuel in the store. He paints to himself, and he will paint so to the last. The smaller, more elaborate, brilliantly finished technicians of the Dutch school—the Ostades, the Steens, the De Hooghes, etc., the men who see in small-hold the stage now while he starves. But he still sees in big, and he will paint, too, in big, and in black too, whether he starves or not for it.

And I know no picture before which the feeling almost of resentment comes to one so much as when one first stands in the little room at Cassel before the Young Man in the Flap Hat (Schlapphut), which Hals painted in 1660, when he was eighty years old. Probably one has taken one’s stand in the middle of the room, a little too near, and the astonishing medley of shapeless and incoherent gashes and chevrons rises up under one’s offended eyes. It is all shapeless at first sight and without drawing, or even out of drawing, set carelessly across its frame, and it seems to be tumbling all to pieces as you look at it. You are angry with Hals. You have defended him often, but this is a little too much. He is trying too great an experiment on your patience. Does he seriously ask you to take all that mess for a painting? The thing is unworthy even of a great man’s far old age, one says.

If you are as most people—I have noticed—after a contemptuous glance up at the picture and down at the Baedeker, you walk out of the room. If you are a believer in Hals, however hurt you feel, it presently possesses you that you are perhaps treating him badly rather than he you. You fall back to the needful distance near the other wall, and you have before you a wonderful picture —an old man’s work still, one sees that plainly enough—but a work possible only to a mighty artist, and such as none else could have put so upon a canvas.

There is no positive colour again anywhere. Some dull red-brown, and some dull yellow on the chair-rail and back. He had, as usual, on his palette that day his black and his white, yellow ochre and a blue-there is some low-toned blue in the sky at the back—and light red. The pigment in this picture is not used liquid, as it used to be, but somewhat thicker and drier, and the modelling is got by laying on rather square flat blocks of colour, which are not worked together over the edges, but lie side by side like modern French studio work in its early stage. The hands are swept in with great strokes of red and yellow and black.

The young man-he becomes a good deal older in a reproduction—is light of hair and gray of eye, and the merry, good-tempered expression of his face gets hold of you and stays with you when once you have taken time and trouble enough to make his acquaintance. Your feeling of resentment has entirely passed away, and you go back again and again captivated in some mysterious way, not by the beauty of the thing, for beauty is the wrong word to apply to any late work of Hals, but rather by the magic of the seeing and the rendering.

And the drawing, of which one had been so mistrustful at first, has now resolved itself into a no less marvellous feat of expression. Of strict, definite drawing, in the academic sense, there is none. But there is the suggestion, the shadowing forth of it all which would be impossible to any man who had not long ago had at his brushes’ end all there was to know of drawing. He suggests to you, he hints to you, he indicates to you. You may take up his suggestion, or you may leave it. But there it is for you, and by its aid you see what he has drawn through what he has not drawn. The young man sits across the chair, his right arm on its back-Hals tells you that with his painting; his left arm, invisible, is resting on his left hip—he tells you that by suggestion. His left leg is drawn back farther than his right, which is evidently projected forward to prevent the chair from collapsing. Not one of these things is expressly stated, the limbs being all, save the right arm, out of the picture. The longer you look the more do you feel that he has told you everything, where he seemed to have told you nothing. The same result will follow, though of necessity in a far less degree, upon an unhurried study of the re-production.

The last stage has now been reached. There is a gap of four years, and then the two Regenten pictures of the Guardians of the Poorhouse, which we have had to take note of in an earlier chapter, and then the grave in the choir of St. Bavon.