FRANS HALS: A celebration of art and life

During a weekend, when I was not travelling to my family in Rome, I did one early morning in Paris wake up with a desire to do something unexpected, something spontaneous. I dressed quickly, took the metro to La Chapelle, a café au lait and a croissant at a bistro in Gare du Nord and then the train to London. During the trip, the drizzle turned into pouring rain. Outside Calais, before the train entered the tunnel under the Channel, I saw a desperate deer trapped between a high fence and the barbed wire bordering the track.

 

 

In London, I walked for a couple of hours back and forth across the creaking parquet floors of National Gallery. I had been there before looking for some of my favourites – Hogarth’ shrimp vendor, van Eyck’s bride and groom, Bellini’s doge, Holbein’s ambassadors, Vermeer’s lady at the spinet, Van Gogh’s and Dealcriox’s self-portraits, Turner’s Temeraire, Campin’s Madonna, Crivelli’s Annunciation, Cosimo Tura’s Calliope and many more. The visit lasted for hours and turned into a time-consuming pleasure.

Seized by the refined shades of grey and the shimmering surface of the skull, I was left standing in front of Frans Hals’ Young Man with a Skull. The delight of museum visits consists of the opportunity to approach a painting up close and thus distinguish brushwork and shifting light, the structure of the paint layers, as well as looking at art from both afar and very close.

 


 

Earlier I had in a similar fashion studied Hals’ gypsy girl in the Louvre; smiling, alive and healthy looking, she casts a glimpse at someone outside the picture frame, maybe a tavern customer. 

 

 

Perhaps Haarlem’s full-bodied beer was exported to London, where I had just been captivated by another girl with an even more winning and open smile than Hals’ gypsy lady, namely Hogarth’s red-cheeked shrimp saleswoman, made with the same light brushwork as the gypsy in the Louvre, albeit with browner colour tones. Perhaps Hogarth had been inspired by Hals, who through his virtuoso technique has been an inspiration for many an artist, in particular pioneering masters like Courbet, van Gogh and Manet.

 


Frans Hals’ breadth of execution is evident in his Gypsy Girl; the fresh and open depiction of an individual’s unique features, done with a seemingly unbound and at the same time firm touch. Upon closer inspection Hals’ brushwork becomes visible. No drawings made by him have been found and thus no preparatory sketches for his masterpieces. Maybe he painted directly on the linen, only guided by his intuition, a clear gaze and a confident hand. An ability to, with unforced ease, anticipate a final impression. How his painting would be assessed when it finally came to adorn the home of some wealthy Haarlem citizen, object to the scrutiny of a visitor’s in-depth consideration.

He applied his shimmering colours with what appear to be sweeping brushstrokes. Colours which he did not, like the Renaissance masters manufacture himself, but bought from Haarlem's chemists. He was once close to ending up in a debtor’s prison due to unpaid paints, on another occasion it was for debts to a baker and a shoemaker. The skilfully applied colour shades of the gypsy girl’s sleeve is a combination of thin and thick colouring, which interacts to create a light-radiating splendour that is both solid and subtle. A ruff,

an embroidered silk sleeve:

 

 

For a long time it was assumed that Hals created his art fast and spontaneously. However, when you approach one of his canvases, like the Gypsy Girl, something I could do at the Louvre without the alarm system beginning to sound, I could find that Hals, like Titian or Velazquez, carefully produced shades and light through a bold mix of underlying and covering colour surfaces applied with both thin and thick paint. Apart from brushes he also used the palette knife to smear on layers of colour. If seen from a distance this patchwork, like the one constituting the gypsy girl’ s cotton blouse, becomes wonderfully alive.

 

 

The amount of sublime shades of a single color that Hals managed to create on a piece of fabric made the astonished van Gogh exclaim, in one of his many letters to his brother Theo: “Frans Hals must have at least twenty-seven shades of black!” He added how much he appreciated the artist’s bold method of making his brushstrokes visible:

 

What a joy it is to see a Frans Hals, how different it is from the paintings – so many of them – where everything is carefully smoothed out in the same manner. 

 

Perhaps he had been confronted with a painting similar to Hals’ portrait of the brewer Haks Claez Duyst van Voorhout – whose somewhat wasted and fleshy face possibly testifies to an excessive delight in his own drinks. The silk fabric on van Voorhout’s garment shimmers in a variety of shades of grey and black.

 


 

In many ways, Frans Hals, like Cezanne, is an artist whose revolutionary technique has been especially appreciated by other, like-minded artists. Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), the eighteenth-century acclaimed portrait painter who in 1768 was appointed president of the newly established Royal Academy of Arts and furthermore was ennobled by George III, approvingly described Frans Hals’ in his academy lectures, Discourses:

 

 

In the works of Frank [sic] Hals, the portrait-painter may observe the composition of a face, the features well put together, as the painters express it; from whence proceeds that strong-marked character of individual nature, which is so remarkable in his portraits, and is not found in an equal degree in any other painter.

However, Reynolds did not understand, as van Gogh did, Hals’ virtuoso play with visible nuances and dynamic traits, and instead, as so many other of his contemporaries, he considered them as an expression of impulsivity and “slackness” that unfortunately had prevented Hals from “completing” his prospective masterpiece. Reynolds again:

 

If he had joined this most difficult part of the art, a patience in finishing what he had so correctly planned, he might justly have claimed the place which Vandyck, all things considered, so justly holds as the first of portrait-painters.

What Sir Joshua Reynolds probably could not appreciate was how Frans Hals excelled in an ability that through a single colour create unexpected variations, like Bach playing with a fugue, or in his Goldberg Variations. See, for example, how Hals in the portrait of the cloth retailer and poorhouse founder Willem van Heythuysen, who is comfortably and casually reclining on a chair, creates a toccata and fugue of brown and grey.


Below are Glenn Gould's strange graffiti on the sheet music that formed the basis for his interpretations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

 

 

Hals’ Young Man with a Skull also plays with shades of grey and brown; in his mantle and in a background that, like Johannes Vermeer’s walls, combine a variety of light and shades. The question is whether Vermeer in his subtle nuances does not pursue his championship even further than Hals. In his exquisite Young Woman at the Spinet, which, like a Young Man with a Skull, illuminates one of the National Gallery’s halls, Vermeer excels in reproducing the shimmering character of each material reproduced in his painting; the marble of the floor, the silk of the dress, the gilded frame of the painting, the velvet of the seat – a Kammerspiel of light and colour.

 

 

I sat down while gazing at Hals’ portrait of a young man holding a skull. It was as if the painting opened into a room beyond the museum wall. As if I I had been invited to enter another, enchanted room, like Alice when she through a mirror entered the Looking-Glass World. Wondering why I came to think of Bach’s Goldberg Variations? Maybe it was the reading of Thomas Bernhard that made me do it.

 

 

In Bernhard’s The Loser, two young pianists are caught up in suicidal tendencies after being confronted with Glenn Gould’s genius. They had studied with the Canadian virtuoso at the Mozarteum University of Music in Salzburg and then found that Gould’ s talent was far superior to that of their teachers and furthermore completely inexplicable.

 

 

Wertheimer, the novel’s narrator, has given up his dreams of a career as a pianist. They had been crushed by Gould's “brutally open, yet healthy American-Canadian behaviour.” Gould had called Wertheimer an Untergehera term apparently coined by Bernhard and which may mean something like “someone who goes under the radar,” someone who passes unnoticed through life, but may also be a loser, someone who “walks below” and thus probably is destined to perish due to his own inadequacy. In any case, Wertheimer gave up his musical ambitions. Compared to Gould’s brilliance, they appeared to be entirely meaningless. Instead, he studies philosophy and writes on a never-ending dissertation – About Glenn Gould, at the same time as he tells himself and others about what he intends to write about, although nothing valuable materializes from his intense contemplations. Gradually, Wertheimer distances himself from almost all social interaction, while tyrannizing his devoted and gentle sister. Wertheimer’s meandering narrative, which constitutes the novel, suggests a journey towards an inevitable doom.

 

 

The fact that I ended up in a meditative state of mind in front of Frans Hals’ portrayal of the young man (an actor?) might also be put in connection with another of Bernhard’s novels. In Old Masters he describes how Reger, an eighty-years-old music critic who almost daily for thirty years had been sitting on the same sofa in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, while gazing at Tintoretto’s portrait of a white-bearded man. Sitting in front of that painting, Reger has let his thoughts run free in all possible directions. The novel is told by another elderly man, Atzbacher, who had met Reger only a few days earlier but had already made inquires about the strange man. Partly through Reger’s monologues and partly through the detailed information he obtains from an admiring caretaker, who throughout the years has made sure that Reger is not disturbed during his sittings in front of the Tintoretto painting.

 

 

It all turns into a rambling monologue about life, art, music, philosophy and the unnecessary present. Interesting thoughts combined with old-fashioned complaints. The result could have been disastrous, but with a skilled writer like Bernhard it all becomes thought-provoking, amusing and absurd. The novel made me wonder if I too am about to turn into a slightly demented, somewhat derailed old man, especially considering my long-winding blog entries.

 

Who was the young man in Frans Hals’ painting? For sure the painting must have an underlying meaning. It is probably a vanitas, which wants to remind the viewer of the emptiness of earthly life, the brevity of youth, the certainty of death and thus urge us to reflect on the joy of life and ever-lasting moral values. Paintings with skulls usually intend to do that. But the young man might just as well be a cheerful guy whose outstretched hand invites us to participate in some kind of entertainment. He can may also be an actor in the process of initiating a monologue and his side glance may then be a sign that he awaits a go-ahead from a director.

 

 

Maybe he was a member of Frans Hals’ rederijkkamer, or because of his youth he could rather have been a semi-professional actor, a so-called personagiën, who did not pay a membership fee but worked for food and drink, which he was treated with after each performance.

 

It all turns into a rambling monologue about life, art, music, philosophy and the unnecessary present. Interesting thoughts combined with old-fashioned complaints. The result could have been disastrous, but with a skilled writer like Bernhard it all becomes thought-provoking, amusing and absurd. The novel made me wonder if I too am about to turn into a slightly demented, somewhat derailed old man, especially considering my long-winding blog entries.

rederijkkamer? The word means “rhetoric chamber” and constituted during Frans Hals’ time popular associations whose members gathered to eat, drink and have fun while reciting their own poems to each other, giving solemn or parodic speeches, performing small sketches or even plays in front of paying audiences. Most famous were variants of the already during the late Middle Ages popular Elckerlyc, the source for the English mystery play Everyman. 

 

 Not anyone could become member of a rederijkkamer, like in the Rotary Clubs nowadays you had to be introduced by other members and then pay for your membership. It could be quite prestigious to belong to certain rederijkkamers, which then often included mayors and other town celebrities, although there were also more popular variants – such as the one that below congregates in a messy inn where a rederijker can be seen while he in the open window entertains a group of listeners with the reading of one of his texts.

The main purpose of a 
rederijkkamer was to entertain its members, while eating and drinking in abundance. Membership could also include arranging weddings, birthday celebrations and other festivities. It also happened that members made collections for recitation brothers who, for various reasons, had come upon bad times.

 

Each rederijkkamer had its own coat of arms and distinctive ceremonies. Several erected stately houses for their association and paid for elaborate outdoor stages for temporary theatre performances, or even permanent theatres. These were usually not only paid for by members, but money could also be gained from the arrangement of lotteries with attractive prices.

 

Here we see a group of rederjiks who on a painting by the restaurant owner and artist Jan Steen recite poetry in an open window, above the emblem of their order, which adorned their club house.

 

 

Frans Hals and his younger artist brother Dirck were since 1616 members of the rhetoric chamber De Wijngaardranken, The Vine Yard Drinkers, and in this club the goings-on could probably be pretty wild. In a painting by Frans Hals from the same year, Mardi Gras, we see a couple of well-known club members – the comedians Peckelharing, Pickled Herring, on the far left, and the ruddy Hans Worst, Hans Sausage, who while wearing a necklace made out of sausages and eggs puts his arm around a festively dressed and red-cheeked girl, who possibly could be a dressed-up guy.

 

 

Incidentally, 1616 seems to have been a critical turning point for the then thirty-three-years-old Frans Hals. By the beginning of that year he had made his first and probably only trip outside Haarlem and had for a month visited his birthplace, Antwerp, where he probably had seen works by Rubens, Jordaens and van Dyck. In any case, on his return to Haarlem, Hals developed a new and bold painting technique, of which the Mardi Gras appears to have been a first result.

 

A colourful and picturesque painting that with its sweeping brushstrokes had not previously been created in Holland, at least not in Haarlem. Figures and objects fill the entire image and even seem to press against the frames. Bold colours and shadows have been created in tones of blue and green, reminiscent of works by contemporary Flemish masters.

 

Shortly after the completion of Mardi Gras, Hals received an order for a large group portrait of the officers of St George’s Civic Guard Company and his luck was made. His outstanding ability to capture the distinctive features of the various individuals and their lively conversation around a banquet table was immediately appreciated. Even if some of the protagonists evidently are posing it is as if a visitor had just entered the dining hall, surprised them and announced that it was time for a group photo. Despite the liveliness and variations, Hals succeeded in depicting the characteristics of each individual militia member, in an equal and lucid manner.

 

After the success with St George’s officers’ banquet, Frans Hals did for several years rarely miss a portrait order. Unlike most other Dutch portrait painters, Hals had his clients visit him and sit for their portraits within his well-equipped studio, where he also taught a number of students. Frans Hals soon became a respected citizen and successful artist, but he was never wealthy. His clients included a large number of mayors, influential people and citizens who had made their fortunes through the local beer and textile industry, as well as an increasingly extensive colonial trade.

 

Frans Hals’ intimate realism and great human interest were not limited to income-generating portraits of individual citizens and patrons. He found his motives in all walks of life; banquets or meetings between officers, philanthropists and city councils, flattering portraits of people who wanted to please themselves and impress their surroundings with images demonstrating their success and social status, or for contemporaries and posterity demonstrate their love and fidelity to wife or husband, through so-called marriage portraits. At the same time, Hals moved amidst taverns and popular markets, where he portrayed their drinkers, musicians, actors, singers, sailors, waitresses, fishmongers, tavern heroes and odd originals. Studies that often found their market among restaurant owners and art collectors. Frans Hals painted no religious motifs whatsoever, no narrative genre paintings, no landscapes, dedicating himself entirely to portraits – some of which were were made in, or against the backdrop of, one or another landscape, several of which were executed by other artists.

 

 

The year of Hals’ breakthrough at Haarelm’s overcrowded art market was also a time of hardship. In November 1616, Hals’ wife and two of their three children had died. Anneke Harmensdochter was the daughter of a linen manufacturer and like Frans Hals a Catholic. They had married in 1610 and since the couple were Catholics, their wedding had been registered with the municipality and not with the Church. Anneke probably died in childbirth and three months later Frans Hals married his housekeeper, the illiterate daughter of a fishmonger. Nine days after the marriage, the bride gave birth to a daughter. Due to the condition of Frans Hals’ future wife, the wedding had taken place in a small village outside Haarlem. Lysbeth Reyniers eventually gave birth to eight children, of whom three boys from this apparently harmonious marriage became artists, along with Hals’ firstborn son, Harmen, from his first marriage. Lysbeth became more than eighty years old and survived her husband by eight.

 

For the next half century, Hals probably never left Haarlem where he was respected and successful, though far from wealthy. Even if his clients included mayors and wealthy citizens, as well as leading figures in the local beer and fabric industry. On various occasions, especially in later years, Hals struggled financially, mainly due to the burden of supporting a large family, but also the fact that few Dutch portrait painters were well paid.

 

Several of Hals’ paintings, some of which certainly adorned Haarlem's more fashionable restaurants, may be portraits of members of his rederijkkamer. The legendary mulatto who went by the name Peckelharing was it for sure. Contemporary sources mention him as an esteemed comedian and his portrait hung in the tavern De Koning van Vrankrijk, which Hals certainly visited.

 


The violinist David van Aken at Stockholm National Museum was another member of the rederijkkamer.

And maybe even the Louvre’s Lute Player:

 

 

Possibly also the somewhat over-refreshed Merry Drinker in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, who holds in his hand a wine glass made with all Hals’ subtle “simplicity”.

 

 

With a bubbling, albeit slightly intoxicated zest for life, these carousers and rhetoricians turn to the viewer, like this ruddy, young man raising his glass to our well-being, while holding his dog by the chin and his apple-cheeked girlfriend is clinging to him.

 

 

Such life-affirmative works of art have meant that some of Hals’ biographers and critics more than a hundred years after his death began to turn this extremely skilled innovator and in his own time respected artist into a pub-dwelling boozer, something he certainly was not. Such fictions probably arose from the fact that there is not much information about the man Frans Hals. We often know more about the bourgeoisie he portrayed than the artist himself, even though several of them have become immortalized by being counterfeited by a great artist. In addition, Frans Hals, as I metioned above, left no drawings and sketches behind and not a single written line. As I look at this master’s paintings, I recall Bob Dylan's statement:

 

It doesn’t really matter where a song comes from. It just matters where it takes you.

 

While I in the National Gallery looked at Young Man with Skull, I recalled that one of Frans Hals’ absolute masterpieces was in London – The Smiling Cavalier in the Wallace Collection. I could not miss it, now that I had ended up in London! I glanced at my watch, it was not yet three in the afternoon and the Wallace Collection could not be more than half an hour’s quick walk from the National Gallery. Even though I had been to London several times, I had never been there. Now or never!

 

 

I hurried down to Charing Cross Station and took the tube to Oxford Circus. In the annoying pouring rain, I then briskly walked to the Wallace Collection, only to find that it was closing at three o'clock. Typical England, everything was awkward, even museum schedules.

 

The elderly, corpulent and friendly caretaker, who was about to close the doors, apologized with the words: “Sorry mate, closing time.” He caught a glance of my disappointment and comforted me by pointing out that there was in any case not much I would have time to see in five minutes. I explained that it was only one painting I was interested in. The old gentleman shone up: “Well, well, that one! Yes, it is also my favourite. Wait a minute, I’ll be back.” He disappeared into the building and expectantly I assumed he would come back to tell me it was quite OK if I took a look at the Smiling Cavalier. I was looking forward to enjoy the premises on my own. However, when the caretaker returned, he handed me two art cards. “Take these as a comfort,” he told me, ”and come back tomorrow. Take them as a gift, they are the best.” It was Fragonard’s Les hazards heurreaux de l’escarpolette, or as it is commonly called – the Swing and Frans Hals’ Smiling Cavalier. Deeply moved, I thanked the friendly man and returned into the rain.

 

 

Since it was not that far to Baker Street, I consoled myself by going to 221 B to visit Sherlock Holmes’ reconstructed apartment. Strangely enough, there were not so many visitors and since the place did not close until six o'clock, I could for quite some time have a look at the cluttered living room, familiar through the many times I had read the Sherlock-Holmes stories during my book devouring youth. I was probably in the right mood since I found the fake environment strangely genuine (221B was a made-up address) and let myself be intrigued by the room, which even had the fire lit in the cosy fireplace. The warmth and glow of the room was soothing during this grey day and when I sat in the train back to Paris while looing at the card of Frans Hals’ cavalier, I felt it had been a satisfying day.

 

 

When I look at the prosperous, smiling and rosy-cheeked burghers in Hals’ paintings, it is easy to be induced to imagine that these were times of peace and harmony. Admittedly, Haarlem was during most of Frans Hals’ life, 1583-1666, characterized by a prosperity that the city did not experience neither before, nor later. But this well-being was not at all as privileged as the life I now lead and cannot be compared with the much safer conditions in which many of us are now fortunate enough to experience. Between 1568 and 1648, the seventeen provinces that now make up the Netherlands were at war and repeatedly shaken by plague and other scourges. Frans Hals also had his fair share of all this misery.

 

He apparently remained a Catholic for all his life and was born in Antwerp in the midst of the violent conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, which at that time engulfed the whole of Europe, except for the parts that had been conquered by the Muslim Turks.

 

The great Flemish city was under Spanish rule. Well, Spanish and Spanish, this is is a quite modern concept – national borders were fluid and it would probably better to describe the political map of Europe in accordance with different spheres of influence of princely houses. In that case, it would be more correct to say that Antwerp was under Habsburg rule.

 

Charles V was born in what is now the Belgian city of Ghent. His father was Philip the First of Castile, called The Handsome and his mother Juana de Trastámara, called The Mad. Philip's father, Maximilian, was born in Wiener Neustadt as heir to the German duchy of Habsburg and was in 1508 elected to become German-Roman emperor. Maximilian I is said to have stated: “Others may wage war, you happy Habsburg, get married!” and he married Mary of Burgundy with the result that he came into possession of what would become the modern states of the Netherlands and Belgium. Then Maximilian I succeeded in convincing his son Philip the Handsome to marry the insane Juana, daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, who had united Spain under their rule. In this manner, Philip and Juana’s son, Charles V, became ruler over large parts of Europe and even America “a kingdom where the sun never set.” Under Charles V’s son, Philip II, the Habsburg Empire expanded further by incorporating areas such as Portugal, the Philippines, and most of Italy. However, Philip II had been forced to loose Austria, Bohemia and Hungary to his uncle, something he tried to compensate by trying to conquer France and England.

 

Unfortunately, Philip II was an intolerant, religious fanatic and during his reign a bloody conflict exploded in his Belgian and Dutch possessions. Antwerp was at that time Europe’s richest trading and industrial city, though constant tensions between Catholics and Protestants made it a dangerous focal point within the wobbly Habsburg Empire. Two large military forces were stationed in the city – Sancho d’Avila’s Spanish troops, enclosed in the city’s citadel and the Belgian governor’s German mercenaries. In the countryside surrounding the city, was the elite army of the Habsburg Empire ravaging villages and small towns – the feared and highly efficient Tercios

 

These constituted the most disciplined military force of the day and unlike other princely armies it did not consist of large crowds of more or less cohesive mercenaries from all corners of Europe, but had a hard core of drilled, volunteer Spanish pikemen, who chose their own leaders and were reinforced with an equally well-trained unit consisting of foreign legionaries. The main problem with the Tercios was that, like other armies, in addition to being paid by the princes they served, they also subsisted on looting. 

 

 

By the end of 1576, Philip II’s massive mobilizations and war ventures had forced him to declare his empire bankrupt. While he was negotiating with his creditors, the impatient Tercios had to wait for their pay outside Antwerp’s city gates and they were directing lustful glances towards the legendary wealthy trading city. The anxious Antwerp citizens convinced their governor to strengthen the city’s force of German soldiers of fortune with 6,000 Walloon mercenaries. It was common knowledge that the Spanish troops in the city’s fortress would not hesitate to plunder the bourgeoisie if the brutal, but extremely efficient Tercios decided to attack. 

 

The madness exploded when a fleet carrying 400,000 florins, destined for the Tercios, was seized by Queen Elisabeth’s Englishmen. The Tercios attacked Antwerp and the Walloon troops fled headlong while the German mercenaries, whose forces had been reinforced by the Belgian National Guard, could not withstand the furious onslaught by the Tercios. After fierce but hopeless resistance, Antwerp fell and was during three days mercilessly plundered by the Spanish troops, a bloody incident which came to be known as The Spanish Fury. 7,000 of the city's inhabitants were slaughtered and the city never recovered from the plunder, as usual during the plundering of European cities at the time, it was the Jewish population that was worst affected.

 

 

 

Of course, the terrible atrocities arose the anger among especially Belgian and Dutch Protestants. The orderly resistance against the Habsburgs came from the Dutch and Protestant-dominated area of the empire. Although its 1.5 million inhabitants made up only a fraction of the empire's population, the Dutch areas became the most prominent threat to the rule of Philip II. The Dutch trading and freebooter fleet already controlled a great part of the world's oceans. The West - and East India Companies had established a Dutch trading empire which generated huge incomes and when the Dutch provinces after the plunder of Antwerp in 1579 through The Union in Utrecht allied against the Habsburgs and in 1581 declared their independence under the name of The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, they controlled over 2,000 ships, far more than the combined fleets of England and France. They also had enough wealth to pay for the best of Europe’s mercenaries, who were commanded by Dutch officers, while the newfound State in the Dutch cities organized effective, musket-armed civic guards.

 

 

Three years before Antwerp had been plundered, Frans Hals’ future home town, Haarlem, had also been hit by “the Spanish fury”. The first attempts at rebellion against the Catholic, Habsburg supremacy, had in the late 1560s resulted in a Protestant iconoclasm, when “reformed” crowds destroyed church sculptures and other decorations and also lynched priests, monks and Jews. However, Haarlem’s Citizens’ Guard had managed to prevent looting and massacres. Nevertheless, as Spanish troops marched across the surrounding countryside, looting and burning villages, the citizens of Haarlem joined the resistance movement. Haarlem’s Catholic churches were looted and soon the town was surrounded by Spanish troops. In June 1573, after staging an unusually fierce resistance during which the city’s women played a legendary role, the starving, besieged Haarlem surrendered to a 12,000 man strong army that for seven months had encircled and fought the now impoverished city.

 

 

In 1585, the Netherlands considered itself strong enough to conquer Antwerp from the Habsburgs and their army and fleet expelled the Spaniards from the city. But… after fierce resistance, it was recaptured by Alessandro Farnese’s elite troops. With the terrible massacre that had taken took place nine years earlier in good memory, the victorious Farnese issued strict orders that all looting would be punished with death and the Spanish troops behaved exemplary. The Prince of Parma also gave the city’s Protestants, i.e. the Huguenots, and the Jews two years to convert to Catholicism, or to organize their affairs and emigrate. An exodus to the north began and the city was emptied of half of its inhabitants. Among those who left Antwerp was the two-year-old Frans Hals, who with his parents, his father was a clothing dealer, ended up in Haarlem.

 

By the end of the 1580s, more than 600 families arrived from Antwerp to Haarlem. The new citizens had great competence, especially in the manufacture and trade of linen and silk. The city's population grew from 18,000 in 1573 to about 40,000 in 1622, when more than half of the population had been born in what is now Belgium.

 

To restore the economy after the Spanish looting, Haarlem’s rulers had decided to introduce specific benefits and support in order to attract workers to it brewing and textile industries. Haarlem was already known for these activities, especially thanks to an abundant supply of clean water, filtered through the extensive dunes which bordered the sea.

 

In 1620, the city had a hundred breweries and the textile industry flourished. The linen fabrics were bleached with the help of the water and spread on lawns outside the city. Like here on Jacob van Ruisdael’s view of Haarlem with its “bleaching fields” in the foreground. A painting that also shows the unique Dutch landscape painting with its depictions of the presence of space/sky above plains, which farmers were constantly looking up at the sheltering sky for signs of changes in the weather, while reading the appearance and movements of the clouds. Notice how the magnificent firmament occupies three quarters of Ruisdale’s painting.

 

 

Art and culture were promoted by Haarlem’s rulers, as well as a conscious tolerance for religious diversity. This attracted the influx of Flemish and French immigrants – Catholics, Huguenots and Jews – fleeing the Habsburg occupation of their original home towns. This led to an amazing economic upswing, both in Haarlem and in other Dutch cities. Something that was also expressed in art where churches, monasteries and wealthy nobility were becoming replaced by affluent citizens emerging important cultural consumers who now adorned their homes with portraits, still lives, landscape and genre paintings.

 

 

While looking at the Frans Hals’ pupil Gerrit Berckheyde’s crystal clear depictions of an impeccably clean and tranquil Haarlem, or Pieter de Hooch’s play of light within solid bourgeois homes in Delft and Amsterdam, it is difficult to imagine a backdrop of violence and suffering. Even the somewhat older Frans Hals’ art depicts, despite its dynamism and darker shadowing, a basically safe, social coexistence. Perhaps a quite natural feeling after he and his parents in Haarlem had found a refuge beyond the dangerous, unruly and gunpowder smoke filled streets of Antwerp.

 

 

Hals and his contemporary artist colleagues’ paintings have become the epitome of the reason and order that many of us assume characterized the Dutch Golden Age. Far as it apparently, for most part of time, was from disease and death, the mass slaughter and plunder of the war. Nevertheless, slavery and ruthless colonialism were after all some of the foundations of Dutch prosperity. Poverty can be glimpsed in the work by a master like Rembrandt and the contemporary grotesque madness of war is evident in Jacques Callot’s depictions of the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War in Lorraine.

 

 

It was undeniably a strange and in many respects unique time. Nor can it be denied that the Dutch in their art praised themselves and their prosperous, well-organized society; its cleanliness and concern for others. At the same time, however, a streak of unrest might be discerned under the beautiful surface. A bad conscience for an egocentric well-being that could manifest itself through calvinist austerity and religious bigotry, side by side with an unadulterated worship of the good things in life, and an in those days rare tolerance.

 

 

Simon Schama addressed all this in his The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, in which he examined contradictions of Dutch society during these widely acclaimed times. A comprehensive panorama based on studies of novels, cookbooks, scientific dissertations, bankruptcy records, religious and political propaganda, education, agriculture, festivities and art. The only shortcoming I could discover was possibly, at least from what I can remember, that Schama did not write much about the slavery and exploitative colonialism that supported the Dutch miracle. However, you can not ask for everything.

 

 

While reading Schama’s book, I saw in Paris at a small neighbourhood cinema that specialized in film classics, a series of Charles Laughton’s films, which confirmed my previous admiration for this great actor – his Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Sir Wilfred Robarts in Witness for the Persecution and not least the masterful direction of his only film, the suggestive and original Night of the Hunter.

 

 

A surprise was Rembrandt from 1936, with an always infallible Charles Laughton as a portrait-like Rembrandt in a stylish scenery, which actually managed to convey an environment with businessmen, politicians, farmers and beggars, of course romanticized and stylized in the manner of the time, but nevertheless memorable. Not for nothing was the film made by Alexander Korda who gilded my childhood with his fantastic The Thief of Baghdad.

 

 

The golden age in Haarlem has had quite a lot of impact on the literature that has come my way. Sometime in the mid-seventies, I became fascinated by Gaspard de la Nuit, which I randomly had picked up somewhere. It was written by an Italian-born French poet and is considered to be the first example of prose poetry. Aloysius Bertrand died of tuberculosis in 1841, after a poor life as a largely unknown writer. In his later years he had tried in vain to find a publisher for his Gaspard de Nuit, which in bad proofreading and a small edition was published a year after his death. It was not until the early twentieth century that the long-deceased Bertrand received the attention he deserved. Nevertheless, Baudelaire had early discovered and admired Gaspard de la Nuit, which eventually became a powerful inspiration for his own poetry.

 

 

The Gothic-romantic introduction of the book immediately captured me. The author finds in an overgrown park in Dijon an old man deeply engaged in the reading of a book. He is attracted by the man’s strange appearance and the two men are soon immersed in a mysterious conversation. The old man claims to have discovered “a poet” in Bertrand and explains to him that he has throughout his life searched for the meaning of art and found nothing else than that it is perfected in poetry. Thirty years of study had led the stranger to conclude that the inner core of all art is “God and Love”, though he had always nurtured some doubt about that – Satan must also have a hand in the game. Where else did all the darkness and excitement come from? During a stormy night, the demonic old man had been trapped in Dijon's cathedral where was caught by une clarté pique les tènébres, a clarity that shone through the shadows, and realized that the Devil does not exist, all true art originate from God, even the dark shadows. Artists are merely clumsy counterfeiters of a larger, infinitely more fantastic reality.

The strange man lends Bertrand a manuscript in which he had tried to convey his insights and says that he will return the next day to take back his unique work. However, the strange man with his peculiar accent does not return. The day after the meeting with the mysterious author, Aloysius Betrand asks a park visitor if he knows who Gaspard de la Nuit could be and is answered that he has probably been resuming his endless journeys, or perhaps even returned back to Hell. Bertrand who has now read the manuscript 
Gaspard de la Nuit. Fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot does not take the statement as a joke, realizing that he had met the Devil himself. He tells himself that the demonic old man might just as well be grilled in Hell, but he will publish the book. He draws a portrait of Gaspard de La Nuit on the cover and then tries to get the work published.

 

 

The “fantasies” consist of five short “books” – Ecole Flamande, Flemish School, Le Vieux Paris, The Old Paris, La Nuit et ses Prestiges, The Night and its Wonders, Les Chroniques, The Chronicles, Espagne et Italie, and Silves, it all ends with thirteen independent prose poems, of which Le Gibet, The Gallows, gripped Baudelaire in particular.

 

 

The collection's first poem – Haarlem, captures the world of Haarlem artists:

 

When the golden rooster crows in Amsterdam

the Golden hen of Harlem will lay its eggs.

Nostradamus

Harlem, this admirable burlesque that sums up the Flemish genre.

Harlem painted by Jean Breughel, Peeter-Neef, David Téniers and Paul [sic] Rembrandt;

And the channel where blue water tremble, and the church with its golden blaze, and the laundry drying in the sun, and the roofs, green with hops;

And the storks that flap their wings around the city clock, holding up their necks in the air to catch raindrops with their beaks;

And the carefree mayor stroking his double chin, and the enamoured florist, who is losing weight, with his eye attached to a tulip;

And the gypsy swooning over his mandolin, and the old man who plays Rommelpot, and the child who inflates a bladder;

And the drinkers who smoke in the decrepit tavern, and the maid hanging a dead pheasant in the window.


Another Italian-born Frenchman who wrote about historic Haarlem, among so much else, was Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870). I found his The Black Tulip among my grandfather’s large collection of exciting one-crown books from Nordiska Förlaget and devoured it in a short time, like so many other of Dumas' books.

Although the novel takes its beginnning in 1672, with the lynching of Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis, falsely accused of attempted murder of the popular Wilhelm of Orange, it takes place somewhat incorrectly during the world's first speculation bubble, the so-called tulip mania when a number of speculators became almost insane through tulip bulb trading.

During the 1630s, tulips began to be grown in large scale in the Netherlands and florists soon discovered that the price increased if they kept the more expensive bulbs for a longer time and then sold them in smaller and smaller volumes. As the bulbs could only be traded from June to October, the trade was characterized by a certain amount of uncertainty, which further pushed up the prices.

Soon speculators began to trade in future tulip crops and even bought future bulbs from growers who knew they did not have any coverage for these imaginary tulips. In 1634, demand rose sharply and two years later the price of ordinary bulbs had tripled. People were drawn into bulb speculation, some sold their houses and land to be able to participate in the trade where the price of an exclusive tulip bulb called Centen in two months rose from 40 to 350 florins. In February 1637, it all collapsed, by the end of one single week bulb stocks could not be sold, lots of tulip speculators were ruined and the entire country suffered an economic depression.

During this tulip mania, Cornelius Van Baerle’s initially sad fate unfolds. He is a fanatical flower lover who believes that “despising flowers is insulting God.” The city of Haarlem had set a price of 100,000 francs (golden?) For anyone who could grow a black tulip. Not only money but fame as well was at stake and the black tulip would forever bear the grower’s name.

Van Baerle accepts the challenge and with patience and knowledge he makes his tulips darken more and more. However, his stingy and nasty neighbour, Boxtel, envies Van Baerle’s success. In order to seize Van Baerle’s black tulip, which in all probability will soon sprout in his garden, Boxtel does on false grounds report his neighbour as an ally to the treacherous brothers De Witt. The innocent Van Baerle is sentenced to life in prison. Fortunately, Van Baerle meets the prison guard's beautiful daughter, Rosa, who falls in love with him and her feelings are reciprocated. In the midst of all grief and misery, Rosa helps Van Baerle to drive up the bulbs he had managed to sneak with him into his imprisonment.

In greatest despair, love as well as flowers might sprout, unhindered by gloomy prison walls and a vicious environment of morbid jealousy and evil scheming. A short summary may make Dumas’ story sound silly, but like everything else I have read by this great author, the story telling was so dynamic and exciting that the time I spent on reading his books was barely noticeable. Nevertheless, as a boy I probably considered that the tension slowed down through Van Baerle’s prison love story and unfortunately turned into sentimentality. I should probably read the novel again to see if my childish assessment is still correct.

Dumas manipulated the time period, but was right to the extent that he placed the focal point of the tulip madness to Haarlem. It was when Frans Hals was active in that city that the tulip mania raged at its worst. A prerequisite for the tulip bulb speculation was, of course, a general prosperity. Several citizens could afford to invest in flair and luxury, something that is clearly evident through the fashion elegance of the members of Hals’ Civic Guard Companies.

Or how a fabric dealer like Willem van Heythuysen could pose as if he was an Italian condottiere.

It would not surprise me if Dumas had been inspired for his musketeers through Hals’ art and if Dumas was not, film directors and illustrators of his adventure stories were certainly influenced by it.

And Dumas’ powerful manner of garnishing his joking, laughing musketeers with flair and elegance obviously reflects much of the good mood that can be found by Hals. For example, with his laughing children,

or boisterous citizens.

A self-conscious satisfaction also radiates through Hals’ group portraits, especially the militia officers who, like the wealthy burghers in his portraits, turn their content faces spontaneously towards the viewer.

Individual members of a group – be it clans, families, or football clubs, political parties and all sorts of other associations – tend to present themselves as integrated and happy associates with those they feel kinship and fellowship with. One way is to let yourself be portrayed together with your “likes” without losing your personal uniqueness within a group image, or even better – a group portrait painted by a master.

Group portraits were unusually popular in Fans Hals’ Haarlem, where there was enough local wealth, social responsibility and pursuit of prestige to promote portraits of, for example, the Citizens’ Guard and charities. Such group portraits adorned charities, town halls and officers’ wardrooms and became so popular that they among the artists received a special genre designation – doelenstuck.

In particular Frans Hals became extraordinarily skilled at meeting the demands of his customers by presenting groups in a dynamically mobile manner, while eating, listening to one another and conversing. Always dignified and aware of presence of a viewer, each of the participants’ looks and expressions are by Hals faithfully and equally presented.

If there is more than one person present in Hals’ paintings, he makes and effort to create an interaction between them. This is clearly noticeable in his family - and wedding portraits. The latter were often painted so that they depicted husband and wife separately, but could be hung in such a way that could be viewed next to each other. Consider, for example, the portraits of Stephanus Geraerdts and his wife Isabella Coymans, how they – even if they find themselves within different frames – lean towards each other and lovingly reach out their hands in direction of their loved one.

Or, how a wealthy merchant and adventurer like Isaac Abrahamsz Massa, newly wed to his rose-cheeked and charmingly mischiveous wife Beatrix van der Laas, comfortably settled in a castle park. Beatrix smiles towards the viewer while rests one arm on Isaac's shoulder, whose vertically extended position self-consciously and lazily fills the left half of the picture and thus unites it with the left half, which Hals boldly has left open towards a castle park. Obviously, comes spontaneously to the artist to be able to create a highly original composition.

It was through his trade relations with Russia that Isaac Massa had become a wealthy man. He lived in that country for more than eight years and even wrote a book about it – A Short Story about the Origin of the Current Russian Wars. It is probably Massa’s Russian adventure that Frans Hals alludes to when he outside the window in a portrait of his friend paints a couple of spruces. The Massa family, who like the Hals’ family originated from Antwerp, were always close to Frans and his brother Dirck. Neverthess, it was a friendship that indicated some of the shadows that appeared in Frans Hals’ life.

The son of Isaac Massa’s sister, Sudanne – the charming but cynical Abraham van Potterloo, made Frans Hals’ daughter Sara pregnant, though he refused to recognize his son and thus became the reason to why Sara ended up imprisoned in a Spinning House, accused of “depredation”. After serving her sentence, Sara married a “simple” sailor and moved to Friesland.

The spinning house where Sara was interned for a couple of years was apparently adjacent to Het Dolhuys, a hospital located outside the walls of Haarlem, which served several purposes – as an ordinary hospital, an institution for mentally handicapped, a spinning house, as well as hospice for visitors who arrived in Haarlem after the city gates had been closed for the night.

In 1642, Hals’ son Pieter had been locked up in Het Dolhyus’ ward for individuals who “posed an obvious danger to themselves and society.” Like my childhood town of Hässleholm, which housed an institution for the “insane” called Backagården and located just outside the town had its “village fools”, like Nisse Velo, Assar and Erik Öster, so did Het Dolhuys have its “day releasers”, some of whom have been portrayed by Frans Hals. Like Pieter Verdonck, a deranged member of Haarlem’s Puritan Mennonite Church. With his hair on end, Pieter attacks the viewer with a jawbone taken from a pig or a cow, just like the Biblical suoperman Samson. A contemporary etching depicting the well-known original made at the same time as Hals’ portrait carries the description: “Verdonck that outspoken maniac who attacks everyone with his jawbone.”

Most famous of Frans Hals’ depictions of Haarlem's village fools is his portrait of Malle Babbe. “Malle” means “crazy” and Malle Babbe has actually been identified in Het Dohuys’ patient ledger as Barbara Claes, who had been admitted to the hospital at the same time as Pieter Hals.alle Babbe is portrayed in an equally impressive manner as in most of Frans Hals’ other famous portraits.

 The same superb characterisation of a distinctive face and its specific expression, and with almost abstractly executed details, which at a distance nevertheless coincide into a perfect representation of fabric and skin.

With bold brushstrokes, could Hals create the owl sitting on Malle Babbe’s shoulder, a bird which has made many believe that Malle Babbeis a witch. However, considering the large beer mug she holds in her hand, the owl may just as well allude to the Dutch expression: “Drunk like an owl".

With time, Frans Hals’ palette darkened. We see it, for example, in his portrait of the great philosopher Descartes, the absolute opposite of the fools Pieter Verdonck and Malle Babbe. René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher, mathematician, scientist and jurist. A legend already in his own lifetime, Descartes, like so many others of his contemporaries was searching for absolute knowledge, beyond belief in God and dogmas. He became known for his philosophical conclusion cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. Something, perhaps the only thing, that according to him cannot be doubted.

Conditions for uncontrolled research were limited in France, especially for a free thinker like Descartes. The well-known philosopher, who admittedly never denied he was a Catholic, was nevertheless suspected of living in accordance with his motto bene vixit, bene qui latuit, “a life in secret is a well-lived life.” Catholic establishment regarded him as a dangerous person, and after his death the Vatican put all of Descartes’ works on its index of banned books - the Index librorum prohibitorum. This aversion was probably the reason to why Descartes in 1629 settled in the Netherlands. He could chose any place to live, since all his life he depended on an inheritance from his parents, who died when he was very young. During his last years in the Netherlands Descartes lived in the small village of Endegast, between Harleem and Alkmar. Admittedly, the area was largely inhabited by Calvinists, though if they did not make too much of a fuss Catholics were accepted and Descartes preferred to move within their circles, which generally were more liberal than other religious devotees, especially if compared with their French coreligionists. Haarlem:

was filled with Catholics, who had a Free Church where they could exercise their faith, and there was a number of undisguised priests and missionaries.

 

One of these Catholics was probably also a good friend of Frans Hals – the Catholic priest Aigustijn Bloemaert, who was saddened when his close friend Descartes in September 1649 left the Netherlands for Sweden and he asked Frans Hals to paint a portrait of the philosopher. There are now two portraits of Descartes believed to be traceable back to Frans Hals. The one that hangs in the Louvre is without doubt a copy of a lost original.

 

 

The second is a small picture painted on oak. If the portrait is made by Hals, it would be the smallest painting he ever made, but it could actually be an original since Bloemaert only wanted a simple memory token of his friend. The painting can now be seen at the Glyptoteket in Copenhagen and gives in all its simplicity an intense and personal impression. Its surface is scratched, as if someone wanted to demonstrate his contempt for a philosopher accused of being an atheist, but whose portrait nevertheless was owned by a pious Catholic priest. It is actually quite possible that the Copenhagen picture is an original and that Hals used it as a model when he in Descartes’ absence painted the larger, now vanished portrait.

 

Descartes did not thrive in Stockholm. He wrote in a letter:

 

I think that in the winter, men’s thoughts here freeze like water. […] I am out of my element here, and I desire only tranquillity and repose, which are goods the most powerful kings on earth cannot give to those who cannot obtain them for themselves […] Why am I in this frozen hell? Because I am a man who wants to be known by everyone.

 

It had been agreed that he three times a week would give Queen Kristina philosophy lessons, but due to her government duties, these must begin at five in the morning. It soon became clear that neither the philosopher nor the queen liked each other, even though they had corresponded for several years. In fact, she was not particularly attracted by his mechanically conditioned philosophy, nor was she convinced that the philosopher was indeed a devout Catholic. Descartes, on the other hand, was not particularly interested in the Queen's weakness for ancient Greece.

 

 

Instead of discussing philosophy with him, Kristina got the French serious sage to write a ballet – La Naissance de la Paix, which by the versatile Swedish poet Georg Stierhielm was translated into Fred’s Afl, Peace Breeding. Descartes met the queen no more than five or six times within the huge, draughty and cold castle. On February 1, 1640, Descartes contracted pneumonia and died ten days later.

 

The most probable reason to why Descartes decided to travel to the cold Nordic countries was certainly a lack of money. Korda’s film about Rembrandt is largely concentrated on the artist's struggle against creditors and the compulsion to sell his property to cover his debts. In the same way, the latter part of Frans Hals’ life was marked by similar worries and his paintings became darker and darker, at the same time as his portrait art fell out of fashion. His skills, however, lost none of their power and often strange depths. As in his soulfully beautiful portrait of a young lady from 1660:

 

 

The only thing that lights up his portrait of the brewer Tyman Oosdorp is the white collar and to some extent the face, though unlike what had been the case in Hals’ previous paintings, here the shadows are completely black.

 

 

In 1661, Hals could no longer afford to pay his dues to the artists’ guild – Saint Luke, where he once had been a respected chairman and the following year he was granted an annual municipal pension of 200 florins, double the amount he previously had received for a portrait, as well as a recurring allocation of peat for heating.

 

The following year, Frans Hals moved with his wife to an apartment provided by Haarlem’s Retirement Home. In 1664, he executed his last two great masterpieces – the male and female board members for Haarlem’s Retirement Home. These are far from being any ostentatiously dressed militiamen, but black-clad, strict Calvinists. Although it may be that the men look milder than the amper ladies, although among them you will not find any smiles either and the fourth man from the right does undeniably look as if had been addicted to beer and gin.

 

 

However, the ladies’ rigid attitudes are overly cold and strict, in particular the lady sitting on the far right who has a somewhat creepy aura accentuated by her grotesquely red made-up cheeks and bony hand.

 

 

Two years after Frans Hals created his last group portraits, he died, completely destitute, eighty-four years old.

 

And… did I finally come to see Frans Hals Smiling Cavalier? Yes, several years after my first visit to a closed Wallace Collection, I made a stopover in London during a flight between Copenhagen and Rome and then found the time to take the train into the city centre and Wallace Collection.

 

 

I asked about the caretaker and after describing him I got the answer that he was retired. However, the Cavalier was just as alive as I had imagined him to be. With a smile completely different from Mona Lisa’s, though nevertheless both subtle and enigmatic.

 

 

And what a wonderful brushwork. What shades and details! What an incredibly skilled craftsmanship.

 

 

The lace of the collar, the shades of the silk, the perfection of the embroidery. Everything was what I expected it be and even better than that. I understood what van Gogh meant when he wrote to his brother Theo about his admiration of Honoré Daumier’s art:

 

For instance in ”The Drunkards” […] I find a passion which can be compared with the white heat of iron. The same thing occurs in certain heads by Frans Hals, for instance, it is so sober that it seems cold; but when you look at it for a short while you are astonished to see how someone working apparently with so much emotion and so completely wrapped up in nature had at the same time the presence of mind to put it down with such a firm hand.

 

 

Bernhard, Thomas (2019) The Loser. London: Faber & Faber. Bernhard, Thomas (2020) Old Masters. London: Penguin Modern Classics. Bertrand, Aloysius (2002) Gaspard de la Nuit. Fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot. Paris: Le livre de poche. Dumas, Alexandre (2003) The Black Tulip. London: Penguin Classics. Grimm, Claus and E.C. Montagni (1974) L´Opera completa di Frans Hals. Milano: Rizzoli. Pescio, Claudio (2021) “Hals”, Art e Dossier, No. 385. Reynolds, Joshua (1997) Discourses on Art. New Haven CT: Yale University Press. Rodis-Lewis, Geneviève (1999) Descartes: His Life and Thought. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press. Van Gogh, Vincent (2000) The letters of Vincent van Gogh, edited by Mark Roskill. London: Flamingo. West, Shearer (2004) Portraiture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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