The Artist Life Of Frans Hals

HERE is a man, born, as we have seen, probably between 1580 and 1584; therefore thirty-two to thirty-six years old (the latter more probably) when his first known picture of importance, and that a picture of the first importance, namely, The Banquet of the St. Joris Shooting Company (1616), is painted. He is known also to have painted before 1614 the portrait of the minister, Johannes Bogardus, who died in that year. The picture is lost, but in 1616 Jan Van de Velde made an engraving of it. Beyond this picture nothing genuine from the hand of Frans Hals is known to exist, or is even recorded before the year 1616, when he appears as a fully-equipped painter in a work which is not only a recognized masterpiece amongst the paintings of the world, but is even chosen by some judges and by some artists—I state the opinion without endorsing it—as the painter’s chief achievement. The reader will at once perceive the questions that arise to one’s mind out of these facts. How comes it that Hals appears before us with an acknowledged masterpiece which is led up to by practically no predecessors from his hand? Observe, the difficulty does not lie in the fact that Hals at the age of thirty-two to thirty-six produces a masterpiece. There are plenty of instances in the careers of great artists where masterpieces have been produced at an earlier age; instances, as of Raphael and Giorgione, where even the career itself was near upon its close at such an age. There is no difficulty at all in understanding that a man of the undoubted power of Hals should have painted a great picture at such an age. It is not even remarkable. The wonder and the difficulty lie in the almost total absence of all preliminary examples of the master’s art. Go and stand in the Town Hall before No. 85, the 1616 group of twelve figures, the Doelen1 (shooting) company of St. Joris, which faces you directly as you enter the room and is the first of the great series. It is, although it lacks certain qualities, and those perhaps the highest qualities which the later groups possess, for all that a work of consummate achievement.

It is not merely, as so often happens in a young artist’s early triumph, a work of the highest and most hopeful promise, which, read in the light of later achievements, forecasts the future greatness, and helps us to see how the later greatness grew out of the earlier promise. Frans Hals did indeed, as we shall presently see, go forward to greater strengths. He saw by-and-by with different eyes, and he worked to a different end. Fully granted. But in this first great Doelen picture of 1616 there is nothing young, nothing tentative, nothing immature. He is not feeling his way, he is not still on his way. He has arrived and long arrived. He is complete master of all his craft; nothing gives him any difficulty; his power of achievement is on a perfect level with his power of seeing, though both are to go farther presently. The painting of every detail is masterly, the work of a man who has left all his prentice days long behind, who has learnt all his lessons and run the gauntlet of all his young failures. There is no sense of the effort which makes so much for sympathy in the work of young painters when the power has not yet grown up to the level of the inspiration. Inspiration in this work of Hals there is indeed none. It is quiet, complete, self-possessed achievement, the handiwork of a man who has successfully laid to rest, one after the other, the difficulties of his student days. There is evidence of labour, the concentration of the painter’s whole powers on every point—rather too much so, perhaps—but none of difficulty or experiment. No artist, nor any who knows the history and the life-efforts of all artists before and since, will, in standing before that picture, for one moment cavil at the conclusion which I set forth, that the St. Joris Doelen picture of 1616 was not only not an early picture in the career of the great painter, but that it came pretty far on in his series ; that it had been preceded by many and many another canvas from the same hand; entire failures leading on to partial failures; partial success leading on to complete success, as has happened in the life-history of every man who ever yet set brushes to canvas. That will, I am without any doubt, be the verdict which we must give as we stand before that picture, on the mere evidence of the work itself.

There is another consideration which will bring us to the same conclusion. The fact that Hals was employed at all to paint this Doelen group, while there were in Haarlem still to be had plenty of the men who made a speciality of this kind of thing, and who could give you any number of heads on any number of shoulders, is in itself a proof that in 1616 Hals had already served his apprenticeship and earned a reputation in his native town. The good Dutch burgher of Haarlem did not then, nor does he now, throw away his gulden. The committee of the St. George’s Guild needed to know—we may take our stand upon it—that they were going to get a good likeness per head for their money; and when they chose Frans Hals that year they had, amongst them, seen a good deal of evidence that they would get from him what they paid for. What was that evidence then? A solitary portrait perhaps of respectable Johannes Bogardus?—Credentials too few, and perhaps also too dull, to qualify the painter for the task of painting the goodly and substantial festivity of the Schutters Maaltijd—the dinner of the Archers (archers no longer in that age of gunpowder) of the Company of St. George. They were not, we may take it, very profound judges of a work of art, those solid, downright,somewhat swaggering burghers of Haarlem. They probably had but one standard of selection, likeness and reality. And they needed to know that they had got hold, in Frans Hals, of a man who could do them all, them and all their braveries, their ruffs and their sashes, their velvets and their satins, their bows and their buttons, their pikes and their flags, their cups and their platters, their fowls and their hams and their pasties, all of it as like as it could stare. Where was the evidence on which, when they gave their commission to Frans Hals, they were going to get their money’s worth? That such evidence existed, and in plenty, we may feel absolutely sure. What has become of it all? Where are all the canvases on which Frans Hals worked, and through which he grew to the mastery, and earned the fame which prepared him for the great test of 1616?

I confess with humiliation that I have no answer which will satisfy my readers, having none that will satisfy my-self. It remains to me an unexplained mystery. There is, with the exception which I have already given, no trace of them, nor can I see any hypothesis which satisfactorily accounts for their disappearance. The considerations which I have already set down seem to me quite to dispose of the idea that Hals was not of sufficient fame for his early works to have been worth preserving. He became famous, locally famous at any rate, about 1616, and that fame, by the universal law in such matters, conferred a value on his earlier works which, if my suggestions are reasonable, must have existed in fair plenty in Haarlem.

If we make the extraordinary assumption that his previous works had been so far inferior as to be not worth preserving—and when was such a phenomenal departure and breach of continuity ever seen in the career of any other man—we are reminded that Frans Hals was above all a portrait-painter. The work which gained him fame enough in Haarlem to win him the St. George’s commission was, questionless, previous portraiture from his hand. Now family portraiture gets preserved for considerations quite apart from its artistic excellence, and had Frans Hals’ early portraits been ever so bad, and ever so unlike his subsequent work, many of them, one imagines, would still have hung on the walls of Dutch homes. If artistic value, if commercial value had been wanting to them, their domestic value would, one would suppose, have saved a fair proportion of them long enough until the reviving value of Frans Hals brought them, in our own century, out of their obscurity.

The disregard under which the painter’s name suffered for a full century, say roughly, though not accurately, all the eighteenth century, cannot be called in to explain the disappearance of all these works, because, although during that period, incredible as it may seem, the works of Hals were held of no account and fetched but little money at sale, yet, this having been true for all his works alike, painted at any period of his career, one still has the difficulty that quite a considerable number of his portraits from 1616 onwards remain to us. And these, too, should have disappeared as well as the work done before 1616, if there were anything in the explanation.

In fact, as I began the inquiry so must I end. Where are the prentice pictures, the beginner’s works, the careful, hopeful immaturities, the canvases touched with the signs of dawning strength, such as have marked the growing careers of all other great ones, and assuredly must have marked also the career of this great one, Frans Hals of Haarlem? There is only one answer to be given: ” Who knows? “