Frans Hals – Upgatherings

THERE are many points of interest which one observes in a systematic study of any master which one does not step aside to notice in the course of a description or a discussion, because to do so interrupts the reader, and takes the attention off the leading issues. Yet they are perhaps worth recording in the form of disconnected jottings, because they offer slight aids now and then to the judgement in deciding the question of a true Hals. The reader will therefore fully pardon the apparently incoherent set of observations which I shall set down in this chapter.

Original drawings, preliminary sketches and studies by Hals are exceedingly rare and almost nonexistent. Two drawings in the Teyler Museum at Haarlem of portions of the first Doelen Group of 1616 are now quite understood to be mere sketches or notes from the picture by some not very strong draughtsman at a subsequent date. I venture to believe that the washed drawing for the great Regenten picture of 1641 in the Albertina Collection at Vienna is not, as is generally supposed, a preliminary note of his intentions by Hals, but, as in the case of the Teyler Museum Drawings, a subsequent memorandum by another hand.

This scarcity of original drawings by Hals would seem to imply that his practice was to set down his subject on his canvas with little or no preliminary preparation. That this would be so in such a subject as La Bohémienne, or in any of his full-speed efforts at expression, one can readily understand; but one is surprised to find that there is no evidence of previous arrangement and composition in the case of his larger, carefully studied Doelen groups. They may, however, have been of the nature of the merest rough memoranda, and as such did not commend themselves to the collectors, who treasured the expensive drawings of a Holbein, of a Van Dyck, or a Rembrandt. But at least we may conclude that his portraits were commenced without the careful and complete preliminary sketch which many of the great portrait-painters employed.

In this connection the question naturally suggests itself, did Hals, on the canvas itself, prepare, as so many Dutch-men did, a monochrome, or indeed any form of preliminary under-painting? That this was the practice of the Dutch school who followed him, and who are thought to have derived their views of technique from his example, is quite certain. It was done not only by the figure-painters, but even by the landscapists and sea-painters, the brown under-painting frequently reasserting itself as time has proceeded.

And one argues that therefore it is likely to have been a practice by Hals. But, so, far as I know, there is no picture by him which remains in an unfinished state, nor has any restorer who has cleaned one of Hals’ pictures down to the ground and then covered it up again with his own paint as yet broken silence as to his discoveries. I have carefully examined one or two pictures where a flake of colour has scaled off, leaving the canvas bare. The colour below is a warmish brown, but the evidence is of no value, since that tone is always present in an old canvas, the mere action of the oil sufficing to stain it.

Hals used canvas of a medium texture, and, so far as I know, never of the very coarse texture which many painters, notably the Venetians, have employed. The canvas of the Schlapphut is somewhat coarser than most. He employed oak panel frequently in his earlier pictures, but rarely in his later work.

Hals used medium-sized brushes, as one can assure oneself in some of his later works, where he has left strong, dark sweeps of the brush visible on the canvas. For the details of hair, indeed, he employed quite a small brush.

His treatment of hair is characteristic. On the whole he may be said to have dealt with hair less in full mass than, for example, Velazquez or Van Dyck: and he makes out his hair, and also the beard and moustache, much more in separate detail than those artists. There are times when this method of rendering the separate hairs on top of the general mass becomes somewhat wiry and unpleasant; and one especially notices that where the head comes against its background, he has a tendency to break the fine mass of the hair by corkscrew-like touches round the edge.

He employs, as we have several times noticed, and especially in the first half of his career, a full brush of fluid colour. There is rarely much impasto such as we see in Rembrandt, and no digging into or dragging of thickly-loaded masses. His surface, therefore, dried evenly, and sometimes with a slightly enamel-like effect; and it may at once be said that, regarded as mere ” surface,” and not as a means to an end, it is not delightful in the same sense as a few square inches of surface by Titian.

It is probable, one may almost say evident, that he always painted in at one handling, never trusting to second paintings or caressings of surface, but leaving it as he had placed it. His pictures are, as a rule, in very sound condition, owing to this simple and direct method.

He has, especially in his later pictures, a curious partiality for not setting his portraits straight in their frame, but throwing them somewhat athwart the picture. This attitude will be seen best in the Schlapphut and the Merry Toper of Amsterdam.

A still more noticeable peculiarity is his liking to paint a head very slightly over life-size. The trait can be noticed, so far as I have observed, only in his later portraits, and never in those which date from before 1641. It is associated only with the most dashing and summary examples of his handling, and it is obvious that it could only be employed by a painter who intended to force the spectator to view his pictures from a considerable distance. The Jan Hornebeek (Brussels) and the Schlapphut of Cassel both show this trait, as well as a few others.

Hals painted a glove, or a gloved hand, as no man else, save Velazquez, could paint one. A fine instance will be found in the Colonel jan Claasz. Loo of the Doelen picture, 1633.

A mannerism of Hals may be observed in the strong line of deep red, which he very often uses at the parting of the lips, not losing it or softening it away into the ad-joining planes. This trait is commonly seized on by a restorer, and greatly exaggerated by renewing it in harsher and more solid colour. A notable example is the Nurse and Child at Berlin.

Lastly, I would set down the following list of notable propositions concerning Hals, always limiting them by the reserve, ” so far as is known to me,” and ” so far as the pictures which we possess can be accepted as representative of his complete output.”

Hals never painted a religious subject.

Hals never painted a classical subject.

Hals never painted an historical subject.

Hals never painted a nude subject.

Hals never painted a subject in which either a moral motive or a pathetic motive was the raison d’être of the picture.

Hals rarely painted children.

Hals rarely painted an animal. There is a dog in the 1627 Doelen picture ; a woodpecker (difficult to find) in the tree at the back of the portrait of himself and his wife; an owl, a mere witch’s symbol and hardly a bird, in the Hille Bobbe. But there is no evidence that he had any sympathy with animals, and there is nothing remarkable even in his handling of their texture.

Hals never introduced a horse in his picture ; unlike Velazquez, whose horses, especially their heads, are full of intelligent and masterly understanding of the animal.

Hals never painted landscape for its own sake, and otherwise than as a background or accessory to his portraits. He has left behind him no such studies as Velazquez left; nor even in his portraits is he at all liberal in his employment of landscape or foliage.