Frans Hals – The St. Adriaen’s Group Of 1633 And The St. George’s Group Of 1639: The Regenten Group Of 1641

WE have seen Hals in his 1616 group at the opening of his known career and again eleven years later, well on his road in the two pictures just dealt with, and we have but to move a few paces to the left in the same room to find him in his full strength in his two largest Doelen groups, the St. Adriaen’s of 1633 and the St. George’s of 1639. Hals is now a man between fifty and sixty years old.

The two pictures are sufficiently alike in style and handling to make it easy to pass from one to the other, regarding them both as fully developed examples of the painter’s style. As a matter of personal preference, the St. Adriaen’s group of 1633 appears to me to be the finer and more satisfactory picture both as regards colour and arrangement, but there are individual portions in either that might well be selected as consummate examples of his power.

Hals has kept before him, indeed, his one chief ideal in portrait painting, absolute likeness and reality, and he attains it now by a technique so consummate that, judged upon that ground alone, there is no man who ever handled a brush that can be set before him. Fromentin says in his ” Maîtres d’autrefois,” ” as a mere technician (praticien) he is quite one of the most facile masters, and one of the most expert who have ever existed anywhere, even in Flanders in spite of Rubens and Van Dyck, even in Spain in spite of Velazquez.” And it is impossible to deny the truth of the great French critic’s words. It is not any question of whether we see, as many of us may, far more in Velazquez or in Rembrandt than we can find in Hals—that is a different question, which we may find time to consider in some later pages—but, as a ” technician ” merely, it is not possible to point to any man whose achievement is so unerringly swift, brilliant, and simple. There is no littleness in his views, though his views may at times seem to take in very much the surface of things only, and though he may not seem to penetrate deep below the surface. But the painting of the soul, as we are fond of calling it, is no matter of technique. It depends on other qualities of mind and temperament which we are not at this point considering.

These figures live. They wear real clothes. They leave no doubt in your mind that they and their clothes looked exactly like that. They can claim that the very first purpose of their existence has been fulfilled—and it is very much to claim, though it may not be all—namely, to tell what was the external appearance of the men they represent. Perhaps some persons might have preferred that these solid burghers should have been presented to us by a Van Dyck, who would have read into them all, as he painted them, the grace, the charm, the refinement which belonged to his own nature and never seems to have failed his sitters. But does it follow that he would have given us the real men, as Hals has given them? ” Charm ” is indeed not the quality that can be claimed with any fitness for these works of Hals; but then neither is “charm” the quality that properly be-longed to the burghers of Haarlem.

All that was said in the last chapter as to the increasing sense in Hals of atmosphere and envelopment, of the fusion and blending of the living figure with its surroundings, may be used again here with far more force. Hals never aimed at anything but truth; but he sees truth with different eyes from those wherewith he saw his 1616 subject. These men live and move in their own air, and not in a sort of artistic vacuum. The impression as one looks at them is wholly different, and far more reassuring. It is something indeed akin to the difference between a waxwork figure done to illusion; whose life-likeness has something appalling in it—which even deceives you for a moment, though you feel there is something uncanny about it—and the living being who stands, and sits, and works in the room with you. You feel that you would not like to run up against that colonel, sitting there so solid in the front of the 1616 group, for fear he should hurt you; you feel that you would not like to run up against the Colonel Johann Claasz Loo, of the 1633 group, for fear you should hurt him.

This same Colonel Johann Claasz Loo, who sits in the left of the picture, his head bare, his right hand gloved and resting on his staff, can only be described by the word superb. To begin with, Hals was this time very fortunate in his model. It is a fine type of face, full of strength and very massive, with a quiet dignity about it which makes it very impressive and very difficult to forget. It is the face of a leader of men, and the pose of the figure accords well with the quiet force of the face. It is simple and manly. There is no swagger whatever in either the figure or the face. Hals loved indeed to depict swagger when it was there, none more; but he gives it only to those to whom it belongs. This portrait is a piece of character reading, and of worthy character reading, which may give us pause when we are ready to assert that Hals could not read below the surface. It would be very difficult to point to anything finer than this in the whole range of portrait painting.

In point of composition these two pictures seem to show a weakness in Frans Hals. The 1633 group is less indeed open to criticism. The left-hand mass of that canvas groups fairly well, though not entirely well, while the right-hand portion is scattered and restless. But it is when we come to the 1639 group that we are almost driven to feel that Frans Hals had a defective sense of composition. We have already fully discussed and admitted the enormous difficulties of the problem, and need not recapitulate them. Here were twenty-two persons waiting to have lifelike portraits painted, and all agog for prominence—a colossal enterprise which needs no restating. The motive of the composition seems to be a sort of procession in double file just getting ready for its march out, the two chief officers on the left just facing round to the spectator and the rest in pairs, with one odd one in the rear to fill a space, dispersed across the picture to the right. But the motive does not explain itself, and, moreover, the proportions of the men them-selves have somehow miscarried. Though all appear to be on one plane in the forefront of the picture, yet the men of the rear files are so reduced in size that the two chief officers appear to be of almost colossal bulk. And, moreover, there being no more room for files upon the right, Hals has hit upon the device, not altogether happy, of sending the remainder upstairs to the left, a marshal in the middle, his left hand outstretched, pointing out to them with apparent, and quite natural, indignation that they had better come down again. Indeed, so far as composition is concerned, the picture stands very little in front of the many ill-contrived Doelen groups by inferior masters, and it is only saved from disaster in this respect by the supreme interest of the individual figures, which compel us to look at them one at a time to the forgetting of the whole combined. There is material here, moreover, for bringing it all together. As one looks at the pikes projecting upwards here and there about the picture—correcting, it is true, or relieving the lines of the individual figures just at the very point where each -pike may be, but without any united reference to it as a whole-one is compelled, and sorrowfully, to think of Velazquez in The Surrender of Breda.

As we look at the colour of these two groups, especially of the later of the two, we become aware that there has been a lowering of the tone, beginning with the flesh colours, of which the shadows give now a warm gray instead of the ruddiness of the 1616 period. If you might remove certain strong patches and bands of positive colour, chiefly visible in the sashes and girdles, you would find yourself with the subdued scale of colouring which we shall presently see in a picture by Hals. But for the present that may not be. He still has to put up with discordant elements which are none of his making. There is a certain tawny orange which, worn in a sash, and especially upon black velvet, is not to be got rid of by any device known to man. It is of that peculiarly disagreeable tone dear to the taste of the Roman School, but somewhat more vivid. It refuses to be exorcised into subjection by the magic of any painter. But the burghers wore it, and Hals may not leave it out. So he had to put it in. Subdue it he could not and might not, so he had to endure it.

It was not till 1641 that the opportunity came to him of showing himself the colourist that he was, without the interference of positive colour, in a group painted in black and white and gray, and low-toned in its flesh colour. In that year he received a commission to paint the five Regenten or managers of the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (or Oudemannhuis)-an almshouse for old men. It is the picture which hangs at Haarlem, or should hang, next in order to the five great pictures already dealt with.

I do not believe that anyone who knows Rembrandt’s pictures well, but has not got his dates at command, could ever stand before this canvas of the five “Regents ” by Frans Hals without at once finding himself jumping to the conclusion that it was painted under the influence of Rembrandt, or that its treatment was inspired by him, or even imitated from him. Fromentin did so, and did not verify his dates before he printed his notes. Other writers have done the same. The picture on which this supposed influence is founded is, of course, the celebrated masterpiece of Rembrandt at Amsterdam known as the Staalmeesters—the five syndics of the Clothsellers’ Guild, seated round their table.

Now Frans Hals painted his group of the five Regenten in 1641, and Rembrandt painted his Staalmeesters in 1661. If we approached these two pictures with the steadying effect of these dates upon our minds, should we see more reason to say that influence and inspiration had passed from Rembrandt to Hals than we should to say that it had passed from Hals to Rembrandt? -I speak for the present, be it remembered, merely as to the evidence which one may gather from these two pictures only. There is evidence far more difficult to dispose of, as we shall presently see from another source.

But if the reader will stand before either picture holding in his hand a reproduction of the other, or, failing that opportunity, compare two reproductions, he will be able to analyze his previous conclusion in such a way as to see that it is mainly founded on the fact that both pictures are composed of five figures; that they are alike in shape and size; that in each case the men are sitting round a table ; that in each the costume is the same, black coats, black puritan hats, white broad collars. There results from these corresponding features a strong family likeness which imposes upon the mind, and misleads to the belief that there is more similarity of style and hand-ling than there really is. As a matter of fact, there is extremely little. The foundation of Hals’ group is a greenish gray surrounding the cool fresh blacks of the figures, and warmed in parts by a browner tone; the foundation of Rembrandt’s picture is a golden brown, whose tint has found its way even into the gray half-tones and even into the blacks themselves. And in hand-ling and technique there is no resemblance. If these two pictures could be hung for a short time side by side—Fromentin suggests the experiment—we should, I think prove to ourselves how illusory the supposed connection is. Even with regard to its supposed Rembrandtesque warmth of background and its comparative play of warm light on a limited surface of picture, we are, I am inclined to think, misled by comparison with the earlier works of Hals in the same gallery. Compared with the colder daylight of his own earlier groups, especially the earliest, this Regenten picture of 1641 is suffused, mellow, and softened. But put it side by side with the Staalmeesters—how one wishes it could be done-we should wonder how we had ever come to see Rembrandt in it. I am convinced that in that case, at any rate, the independence of Hals would be seen as clearly on the evidence of the pictures themselves as it is provided for to a great extent by the evidence of dates.

Indeed, both with reference to this picture and to several others, with one notable exception, in which the influence of Rembrandt upon Hals has been claimed, I have found it difficult to satisfy myself of the view taken by many eminent critics, as Dr. W. Bode, Herr E. W. Moes, and others, that at this date (1641), and for a few years on either side of it, the style of Frans Hals had come strongly under the influence of Rembrandt. There are pictures by him, indeed, which do, as we stand before them, set us thinking of Rembrandt-the magnificent Maria Voogt, at Amsterdam, for example, does so—but calmer analysis has nearly always shown me that the resemblance is due to some similarity of force and directness, to some masterly power of seeing which both alike possess, and not to any similarity of handling or treatment which one has borrowed from the other. It must be granted that if ever Hals saw Rembrandt’s work, or Rembrandt Hals’—as without question they must have done—each must have thought much of the other, each may have absorbed insensibly some of the spirit which was moving the other. Yet each remained absolutely himself.

It may even further be granted that there is in one period of Hals’ work, from perhaps 1635 onwards, a hazier, more suffused tone in the shadows, and a slightly warmer scheme of light than before; but it is not necessary to call in the influence of Rembrandt to account for this, nor is there anything to make us think that Hals could not have arrived at it if Rembrandt had never lived. And, indeed, the more one knows the two men the more one feels that there never have been two men who followed each his own line more independently with his own end in view.

I venture, therefore, to put it forth as a conclusion which is in keeping with all the evidence, that the Regenten picture of 1641 is the simple outcome of the course which Hals’ colour development had been following. We have him here, let us remember, for the first time in his career—at least, for the first time of which we have any record—set free from the tyranny of coloured scarves and sashes, and highly flavoured discords of the kind, and allowed to express himself at last in a large group with low-toned harmonies of blacks and grays. And he produces out of these a masterpiece which makes us think of another masterpiece under somewhat similar conditions, painted twenty years later by another hand. The motive both of Hals’ ” Regenten” group (1641) and Rembrandt’s Staalmeesters (1661) is alike—a quintette of grave and reverend seniors in black Dutch garments and sugar-loaf hats gathered around a table. It is a motive common to all the Dutch painters who had had to handle that class of picture, and is the special property neither of Rembrandt nor of Hals.

But meanwhile, in this connection it is necessary and convenient to refer to the shooting company picture of 1637—known as The Company of Captain Reynier Reael or La Compagnie Maigre. The picture was begun by Hals at Amsterdam and, as we now know, was completed by Pieter Codde, and it hangs in the Rijks Museum.

Now this picture bears very closely upon our present question from two aspects. First of all it proves very completely at least one opportunity—there were probably many more 1—which Hals had of seeing and being influenced by the works of his younger fellow-artist. Here we have, if the influence be granted, the channel by which it may have passed from one to the other.

But far more important is its negative evidence upon this question. Here is a picture painted in 1637 in Amsterdam, where Rembrandt was then living and painting in his strength. As we have already said, it was finished by Pieter Codde. It is, however, quite easy to decide which parts were painted by Hals. For example, all the left-hand portion of the picture, some seven figures, are entirely by Hals—he never painted anything better or more his own than that delicious swaggerer the standard-bearer of the company on the extreme left. Now this picture hangs, or did hang, close by the so-called Night Watch of Rembrandt, and within hail of other work by Rembrandt, so that comparison is both easy and enjoyable.

Now let it be remembered that this picture was painted in 1637, well within the period wherein the influence of Rembrandt should have been at work; and, indeed, is claimed to have been at work in two portraits of that year in the Stadel Collection at Frankfort.’ Let it be remembered also that this picture was painted at Amsterdam, and that there if anywhere it would have been tempting to him and to his advantage to have drawn near to the style of his great rival. Can it be said that he in any sense did so in that great and somewhat over-looked group of his at Amsterdam? The question may be left to the reader to decide for himself the next time he visits the Rijks Museum. To myself, the negative evidence of the left-hand portion of that interesting group seems to be of very great weight.