The Merry Company – Frans Hals

A man with a flushed face and a string of sausages, pickled herring, and pigs’ feet about his shoulder holds on his knee a young woman of none too modest appearance. They sit before a table on which are all sorts of food and drink and a stein with the signature F. H. in gothic letters. Two men are standing -back of them; the one at the right leans on the chair-back and looks down at the lady with an expression which shows that they understand one another. The other, with a wooden spoon stuck in his cap, yawns as he holds his hand to his face. Falstaff and Doll Tear sheet at the inn of Dame Quickly, one would say, with Poins and Bardolph looking on.

The three pictures by Hals in the Altman Collection (Nos. 19, 21, and 23) all show the artist in his most jovial and rollicking mood. They seem to have been selected with the purpose of showing the wide difference in outlook between him and Rembrandt. There could be no further extremes in expression than between the boisterous humor of this picture and the other Hals on this wall, on the one side, and on the other the deep comprehension and the all-encompassing pity in the Old Woman Cutting Her Nails. Hals had his sober times, as the portraits of Heer and Vrouw Bodolphe (in Gallery 26; lent by J. Pierpont Morgan) testify, but even in the days of depression of his old age, he could not lose the chance to laugh in his sleeve at his models and bring out their droll peculiarities.

Pictures like these in the Altman Collection are the records of a frankly jolly life without any Puri-tan restrictions. They are renderings of the gay life in the taverns, or other places of worse repute. “The Catalogues,” says Wilhelm Bode, speaking of paintings of this sort in his Masters of Dutch and Flemish Painting, “usually describe the society rep-resented in these pictures as aristocratic society, but the old Dutch catalogues of sales leave no doubt about the matter as they briefly designate them as bordeedtjes or something similar.”

The virtuosity of these works is even more brilliant and astounding than in his portrait commissions. This freedom of handling and color is particularly noticeable in the two principal heads in the Merry Company. They seem to have been done in a half hour of great exhilaration, and the rest of the picture the two men who stand back, the carefully executed still life, and the almost painfully exact lace collar and the embroidered stomacher appear to be the work of a much calmer time.

Dr. Bode dates this work at about 1616. From E. W. Moes’s Life of Frans Hals we learn that at about this time the artist was a member of the Harlem society of De Wyngaerdlranken (the branch of the, vine) and also of another club called Lieft looven al (Love first of all). His membership in these organizations may have fostered the type of subject of which these Altman pictures give such lively examples.

The painting was exhibited at the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition at the Museum in 1909. It was formerly in the collection of Mr. Cocret, Paris. Dirk Hals, the younger brother of the painter, copied with slight variations the figures in our picture for the principal group of his Fête Champêtre in the Louvre.