Frans Hals – The Middle Doelen Groups

AFTER the 1616 Doelen group comes an interva of eleven years before the next shooting group, or rather pair of groups, for there are two dated in the same year, namely, 1627. Here, again, we have a mysterious gap which Scriverius, or Houbraken, or any one of them could have filled for us by five minutes of sensible writing. It is, I think, extremely difficult to account for the interval. It cannot be supposed that the good burghers of Haarlem ceased to march out, and feast, and have their portraits painted in the act, for so long a series of years. And, indeed, there are in the Rathaus at Haarlem two large shooting groups by Pieter Frans De Grebber (the younger of that name) dated 1619, though I do not know any more such groups at Haarlem painted from 1618 to 1627. It is difficult to suppose that Hals’ first great group had failed to satisfy, and indeed the supply of individual portraits that came from his hands between 1616 and 1627 shows that he was now enjoying a great practice as a portrait-painter in Haarlem. The magnificent pair of portraits at the Hague, the pair at Cassel, The Laughing Cavalier in the Wallace Collection, all belong to that period, besides a large number of other fine portraits. We have already shown, too, that the shortcomings of the painter brought with them no social ostracism. The period, indeed, represents the first half of Hals’ most productive and most prosperous day. It is difficult, therefore, to suppose that he was standing aside all that time, because his first great effort as a painter of these guild pieces was unacceptable. I have already noticed that in 1619 Pieter De Grebber painted two of these pieces, one for the St. George’s Guild and one whose subject is uncertain. Both hang in the Museum at Haarlem. But from that time to 1627 there is no surviving group either by Hals, or De Grebber, or by any other. I suggest that it is possible that Hals did, in that interval paint one or more of these pieces which have disappeared.

The disappearance 0f one of these enormous canvases, and by a man of such recognized value as Hals, must at first sight seem impossible, or at least extremely improbable. Unhappily it is neither. For a period of over a hundred years, falling roughly within the limits of the entire eighteenth century, but beginning earlier and ending later, the fame of Hals suffered an almost total eclipse. His name was to the average picture-buyer almost unknown, and to the picture-dealer no name to conjure by. His portraits fetched furniture prices. An example or two will suffice. In 1786 the Acronius, now at Berlin, was sold at auction in Haarlem for three florins (five shillings). In 1800 the full-sized portrait of Willem Van Heythuysen, now in the Liechtenstein Gallery at Vienna, was sold among the pictures of Madame Oosten de Bruyn at Haarlem for fifty-one florins (A 5s.). Earlier in the century the half-length portrait, known as The Herring Seller, now in the possession of Lord Northbrook, was sold at Leyden by public auction for fifteen florins (L1 5s.), and many similar cases could be recorded. The revival, indeed, of the fame of Hals has occurred during the past century, and chiefly in the latter half of it. Amongst the many mysterious facts that attach them-selves to the name of this strange man, 1 know none more remarkable than his plunge, some fifty years after his death, into almost total obscurity. The history of art presents us with many remarkable ups and downs in the value which the world has set upon a man’s work, but none so astounding as this, and none which connect themselves with the name of quite so great an artist as this.

And for a considerable part of the period named these pictures, which are now the treasures of the town of Haarlem, were invisible, having been dismounted from their frames and rolled away in roof or cellar. The other-wise unaccountable silence of Reynolds, who gives to Van der Helst unstinted praise, but ignores Frans Hals, is to be thus explained.

My suggestion, therefore, that during a century of neglect some of these works may have been thrust on one side and destroyed, or, at any rate, have suffered such injury that they were never allowed to see the light again, has no impossibility about it. Unfortunately, there is no record of any of these pictures, their dates or their cost, in the account books of the military guilds (a fact which bears out the view that they were not painted out of the funds of the guild, but were paid for by subscription and presented), but the absence of all record makes it impossible to test my suggestion by the only satisfactory means.

The second and third pictures of the great Haarlem series (Nos. 86 and 87 in 1901)-both bear the same date 1627—not, perhaps, implying that both pictures were painted in that year, but that both were completed in 1627. The first of these two, No. 86, represents once more the officers of St George’s (St. Joris) Guild, and contains eleven figures. The second, No. 87, represents the officers of St. Adriaen’s Guild, and contains twelve figures.

The eleven years have modified Hals’ manner of hand-ling, while they have added to his powers of seeing in a very noticeable way. The assertiveness of each separate portrait is no longer there; the figures do not seem ready any longer to bounce out of the frame; Hals has no longer to resort to the artifice of false values to reconcile impossibilities. Those years have established Hals as a master whose reputation is so great that his judgment must be accepted. He is no more, as in the first group, on trial for his fame and his livelihood. He can dare to paint now as he knows and as he feels, though doubtless he both knows and feels a great deal more than he did in 1616. The handling is easier, more spontaneous, less exacting. The tawnyish tone of the first group no longer strikes one, not so much because the flesh tones are painted in a lower key, as because they are no longer hard and clean against an airless background. This time there are pleasant grayish shadows and luminous half-tones to unite this passage with that of the picture. There is some air around the figures, and the rearward figures go back into the room of their own accord, and not through any mental acceptance of their position on the part of the spectator. You can look at these figures without strain, and without stopping to inquire what it is that is not wholly right about the picture. All is easy to the spectator because the painter himself seems to have been at his ease.

And this result is obtained without the least sacrifice of likeness and of convincing truth in the portraiture. Hals has gone forward at all points, and in that not least. These men live and move in their surroundings, and are far less detached and detachable from them than the men of the 1616 group in their startling projection. They are farther back within their frame, and, lifelike and real as they are, they yet belong to the room in which they are sitting, and are not intruding into the room in which the spectator is standing.

The whole scale of colour in these two pictures of 1627 is lower than in the 1616 group, although of varied tints there is a greater profusion. They are reduced in key, and do not attack the eye so aggressively as the tones of the first picture. Yet it is impossible to speak of the colour in either group as wholly pleasant or harmonious. Hals is evidently hampered. These gay burghers will insist on arraying themselves—like ladies at an Academy private view—in the vestments that they prefer, each without reference to other. And they must be painted in the fineries in which they have dined Rasping juxtapositions of antagonistic colours have to be dealt with, but cannot be wholly conquered. He dares not yet fly for refuge to the abnegation of all positive hues. The result is unsuccessful, but success was not possible. There is indeed in No. 86 a passage which is positively discordant. The curtain which fills up the space on the upper left hand of the picture is a singularly unpleasant faded violet with high lights, which, besides being disagreeable in itself, positively refuses, look at it as you will, to do anything for any of the rest of the colours. I am strongly inclined to believe that we have not the colour as Hals left it. Either some of the colour has died out in the fading, leaving behind this distressing piece of upholstery, or else—which is, I believe, the true explanation—there has been a repainting, though not quite recently. This latter view is strengthened by the fact that the handling is extremely empty, dull, and dreary, and not like Hals himself. It is, one may remark, exactly the sort of work which the restorer—who is born to set discords where harmonies were meant—fancies he can do hand over hand.

There are, however, individual passages of colour in both these groups of great charm.’ To take two instances, I would name again the flag over the shoulder of the ensign in No. 86, and in No. 87 the window, with the softened light coming through the slightly green glass, is, though painted on this large scale, as perfect a piece of harmony as anything which Peter de Hoogh himself has ever given us. Once more, indeed, Frans Hals leads the way in big for the Dutchmen who were to follow him in little.

With reference to the composition of these groups, the principle to which attention was drawn on a previous page will be found to hold good. In both the 1627 pictures it will be found that Hals has, as it were, divided his canvas into two main groups, occupying respectively the left and right, and united by figures less closely packed across the centre. This principle is more obvious in No. 87 than in No. 86.

Before passing on from these two pictures to the St. George’s Doelen picture of 1633, which hangs next to them on the left, there are one or two points of interest which it is best to notice here. The figure of the ensign who carries the folded flag across his shoulder in No. 86 is painted in a manner which will at once arrest the artist’s attention, and compel examination. The figure, which, as Fromentin says, is a delicious morsel of painting, is handled more lightly and fluently than the rest, and has something in it which I think will remind us of Rubens more than perhaps anything else to which we can point in our painter’s work. The handling is free, and fresh, and limpid, a brilliant and convincing sketch which looks as if it had been painted there at a sitting of inspiration and left never to be touched again—till the restorer steps in where the angel has feared to tread. Again, it is interesting to note that the Jacob Olycan in No. 86, who sits five from the left at the table, on which his clenched right hand reposes (he is between the two ensigns and looks up to speak to one of them), is the same Jacob Pietersz Olycan whose portrait by Hals, painted in 1625, two years before, hangs in the Maurits-huis at the Hague. Again, in this same group the some-what rowdy-looking person who sits sixth from the left, in front of the table, and who turns his glass upside down after emptying it, is the same man as he who stands fifth from the left end in the lower row of the 1639 St. George’s group, grasping a baton in his left hand. In the earlier group he has often been mistaken for Frans Hals himself, who however had, it is needless to say, no place in these groups. The man is Michielsz de Waal,’ who when the later group was painted was fiscal of the guild. The twelve intervening years of marching and feasting have left marks upon his complexion which Hals has not forgotten to record.