Frans Hals – The Man

THE Hals family had long been identified with Haarlem. For a full two centuries we are told that the name occurs in the archives of the city. The ancestors of Frans Hals had served in many offices of trust and dignity. The painter’s father, Pieter Claesz Hals, who had married Lysbeth Coper, was one of the municipal magistrates of the town, and in 1572 one Frans Claesz Hals, probably our painter’s uncle, was a member of the Town Council (Vroedschap) of Haarlem. We are with-out means of knowing what exact profession Pieter Claesz Hals, the painter’s father, followed. He must have lived in the city through the seven months of the winter’s siege in 1572-3, and have been a witness of the scenes of heroism and brutality which place the defence of Haarlem on a level with those of Jerusalem, Saragossa, and Saguntutn. He must have known Kenau Hasselaer 1 and her three hundred brave women defenders; Anthony Oliver the painter, De la Marck, and many others whose naines have become immortal. But it is hardly probable that he took any prominent part in the defence, since all who did so perished in the butchery which followed on the surrender to the Spaniards. It has, indeed, been suggested that the reason why Frans Hals’ father left his town in 1579, as we know that he did, was that he had had sympathies with the Spanish party, amongst whom were, just before the siege began, not a few of the magistracy; and that the unpopularity which this begot against him led him to withdraw. This is, however, a mere guess, and not a very probable guess; some six years elapsed before Hals migrated from Haarlem to Antwerp. It was at Antwerp, almost beyond doubt, that Frans Hals the painter was born, and not at Mechlin, as the earlier chroniclers record. In all official documents, creditable and discreditable, Frans Hals is described as ” of Antwerp,” and this even when he had returned to Haarlem and had been established there as a citizen for a full fifty years. It is, in short, the old Dutch custom of always describing a man by the place of his birth, and as such the title ” Frans Hals of Antwerp ” carries the point that his birthplace was the Flemish town.

The date of his birth is far more uncertain, though far more important. It might be settled, one would suppose, by systematic search in the parish registers at Antwerp, which, so far as I know, has not been undertaken. The earlier chroniclers, following one another, but without giving any reason, all accept his birth-date as 1584, and until within the last few years that date appeared on his pictures in all the leading galleries of Europe. But in most collections, as well as in recent notices of the painter, the date of the painter’s birth has been altered to 1580 or 1581 —an important change, and not without bearing upon the earlier pictures of the painter. It is due to the fact that Vincent Laurenszoon Van der Vinne (the elder), who was for a time in the studio of Frans Hals, and was settled as a painter in Haarlem at the date of the old painter’s death, states that Hals was in August, 1666, eighty-five or eighty-six years old, and reckoning back-wards this gives 1580 or 1581 as the date of birth. But the very vagueness of the statement ” eighty-five or eighty-six ” shows that Van der Vinne had no accurate knowledge of Frans Hals’ age, and it would not be safe to accept any date as final until some trustworthy register or record be found. Our knowledge concerning the early years of the painter is a complete blank. He may be said with some certainty to have gone to Haarlem, and with his parents apparently, before the year 1600, since his younger brother, the painter Dirk Hals, is reputed to have been born in Haarlem before that year. In any case it must have been before the date of 1604, because in that year Karel Van Mander (the elder), who is claimed as having been Frans Hals’ teacher, left Haarlem finally, to die two years later at Amsterdam on September 2nd, 1606. There is no reason whatever to doubt, as some have done, the assertion that Frans Hals worked in the studio at Haarlem which Karel Van Mander and Cornelis Cornelissen kept in the Spaarnestad from 1583 onwards. It is, perhaps safe to say that the painter’s father re-turned to his native town somewhere before 1600, but how long before is a mere matter of conjecture.

Purely conjectural also is the manner of his life and training from 1600 till the year 1611, when an entry in the parish register at Haarlem records the baptism of a son, Herman. The name of Frans Hals’ wife is given as Anneke Hermans or Hermanszoon, and this unhappy lady’s name occurs again in two entries, the first in the police records for February 20th, 1616, when Hals was summoned for maltreating her, was severely reprimanded, and dismissed under the undertaking that he would eschew drunken company and reform. The poor woman died within a very short time, apparently a few weeks only later, but not, it would seem, as the result of Frans Hals’ misconduct. The miserable end of this marriage can hardly have affected the painter very deeply, for just one year later, on February 12th, 1617, his marriage is recorded with Lysbeth Reyniers, and nine days later the register has the entry of the birth of their daughter Sara. His second wife became the mother of many children, and after fifty years of married life she outlived her husband. They lived, it may be observed, in 1617,1 in the Peeuselaarsteeg.

The facts are disagreeable, and, recorded as they are in the unimaginative pages of the parish register and the police court, they admit of no explaining away. But upon them, and around them, has grown up a mass of worthless gossip unbacked by any record, and a good deal of it the growth of later successive enlargements. We are asked on this evidence to believe that Hals was not only a man of imperfect morals, but that he was an habitual and continuous drunkard and sot from about that time (1616) to the end. That his life was entirely Bohemian, the absolute reverse of simple living and high thinking, is quite beyond question. But that he was a mere sot is an assumption which has been built upon the foundation of facts which I have already set down, and perhaps also a little upon the fact that he often chose for his models the less edifying members of society, the mountebank, the gipsy, the strolling player, the pothouse loafer. I hold no brief for the morals of Frans Hals—would not indeed accept one if it were offered; but there is a great difference between admitting the ugly passages in the painter’s life on convincing evidence and admitting, on nothing that can be called evidence at all, that he was an habitual sot of many years’ standing. That is not wholly a moral question; it is also a physical question. I hold it to be impossible from a physical point of view that the charge can be true. Let anyone who is in doubt stand before the series of company pictures in the Town Hall at Haarlem, ranging from 1616 to 1645 (for the present purpose I omit the later groups of the series), and ask whether it was physically possible that those works, whose feature above all else is swift, decided, unerring certainty of eye and hand, and that in an ever-growing degree of strength and assurance, could have been accomplished by a man whose youth, for he was thirty-six when the first of the series was painted, had already been wrecked by dissipation, and whose hand after thirty years more of it still trembled not as it accomplished feats of dexterity and firmness, to put it no higher at present, which have few if any parallels in art. And for further assurance let him fill in the gaps in that series with such portraits as The Laughing Cavalier of the Wallace Gallery; the Beresteyn portraits of the Louvre; the Olycan pair at the Hague; and, above all, the Van der Meer old lady at Amsterdam. If these were the works of a chronic sot, they would make a dangerous argument for a temperance advocate to have to tackle.

In the year 1644, when, at the age of sixty-four, he was doing strong and striking work, he was one of the directors of the Guild of St. Lucas, which protected the interests of all the arts and crafts in Haarlem, a position to which his fame as an artist more than entitled him. But that is the last note of honour and happiness in the painter’s life. Once more it is from the police courts and the workhouse (Oudemannenhuis) that our story is to be completed. This time, however, the entries are pathetic rather than disgraceful.

For many years of his later life, though we have no accurate information of the date at which this began or when it ended, Frans Hals had helped out his living by conducting a life school in his studio. And the names of those who worked in his studio, Brouwer, Ostade, and others, make one suppose that the enterprise must have had its day of success. But that day evidently passed and left the old man without any further resource towards the end of his life. Commissions were few and far between after about the year 1650. Already so far back as 1641 we are told that he refused the payment of his annual subscription to the Guild of St. Lucas, but impecuniosity need not then have been the cause. In 1656, however, we have evidence that poor Hals was on his last legs. His teaching connection had apparently deserted him, or at least was not enough to keep the wolf from the door. In that year his baker—he is not the first nor the last of artists who have had strained relations with their bakers—Jan Ykess sues him for 200 Carolus gulden, and obtains a distress warrant on the painter’s goods. Ten years later, in 1662, Hals in his distress applies to the municipal council for aid and receives a gift of 150 florins down, and two years later still (1664) is once more before them with a like request. They voted the old man a yearly pension of 200 Carolus gulden, and for the immediate present a gift of three loads of peat. It tells so much, that gift of peat, so much of the empty home and the fireless hearth. There was no fuel in the house to keep warmth in the old bones through the chills of a Dutch winter. And Hals was eighty-four years old, and the wife but little less. Two years more above ground for the old man yet, and for her some twelve more—she outlived him, and received fourteen sous a week of poor relief. On September 1st, 1666, according to the parish register,’ Frans Hals was buried, or at least the grave was opened, in the choir of St. Bavon, the great church —one always thinks of it as a cathedral—of Haarlem. The fee paid, four florins, is duly recorded, and has led some of his biographers to introduce a touch of pity, which for once is perhaps unneeded. The four florins does not represent the expenses of a pauper’s funeral, but is evidently the mere sexton’s fee for opening the grave. To me, as I have stood above the great painter’s resting-place and looked down the simple and noble aisles of the great church, it has always seemed that they laid him to rest where it was most honour for him to lie. The choir of a cathedral is no pauper’s grave. ” A miserable tomb,” says Bode. But there are no monuments in the choir of St. Bavon. All alike, wealthy burghers, brave soldiers, penniless artists, lie there beneath the flat and mostly nameless stones, the choir being kept quite free of obstruction. He shared his sleeping-place, at any rate, with some of Holland’s great ones. And I have, for my own part, no doubt that honour was intended to him in laying him there.