Amongst the many paintings at the Wallace Collection in London hangs a portrait titled The Laughing Cavalier. Whilst the man is unnamed, an inscription in the corner reads “aetatis suae 26, anno 1624,” which reveals the sitter was 26 at the time of painting in the year 1624. Despite its title, the sitter probably had no connection with the militia but was instead a wealthy civilian. He is also not laughing, but smiling. Some art historians suggest the sitter is the Dutch cloth merchant Tieleman Roosterman (1598-1673), who the artist painted in 1634 at the age of 36. Yet, who is the artist? It is, to quote the Wallace Collection, the “highly gifted portraitist, Frans Hals.”
Frans Hals the Elder was a 17th-century Dutch Golden Age painter known for his many portraits. Born in 1582 or 1583 in Antwerp, the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium), Hals was the son of a cloth merchant who fled to Haarlem in the new Dutch Republic (the Netherlands) during the Fall of Antwerp between 1584 and 1585. While growing up in Haarlem, Hals received Mannerist artistic instruction under the Flemish émigré, Karel van Mander (1548-1606).
Few records about Hals exist until 1610 when he joined the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke. The guild was formed in 1590 by professional painters, many of whom had fled from Antwerp, as a means of protecting the art market. In the year Hals joined, he had started working as an art restorer for the town council. When the Protestant Dutch Republic was formed in 1588, the Haarlem council confiscated all the Catholic artwork. They later decided some of the paintings were suitable for display in the town hall but many needed restoration.
Also, in 1610, Hals married a Catholic woman called Anneke Harmensdochter (1590-1615). Catholics could not marry in churches in the Dutch Republic, so the wedding took place in the city hall. Sadly, Anneke passed away following the death of their third child in 1615. Of the three, only Harmen (1611-1669) reached adulthood and followed his father’s footsteps to become a painter.
In 1611, Hals produced a portrait of the Catholic pastor Jacobus Zaffius (1534-1618). This is Hals’ earliest known portrait, but his breakthrough into the art world occurred the year after his wife’s death when he painted The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616. Hals served with the St George Militia between 1612 and 1615, so knew some of the men in the group portrait. Civilians were only allowed to serve for three years, which is why Hals was no longer serving at the time of painting. Due to the importance of the officers, the names of all the men are on record today. Holding the flag in the background is Jacob Cornelisz Schout (1600-27). Whilst little is known about Schout, only unmarried men could carry the flag, indicating he was a bachelor in 1616. Seated in the centre is Nicolaes Woutersz van der Meer (1575-1666), the future mayor of Haarlem, whose wife Hals painted in 1631.
In 1617, Hals married Lysbeth Reyniers in the small village of Spaarndam. They could not marry in Haarlem because Lysbeth was already eight months pregnant. A month after the wedding, they welcomed the first of their eight children. As well as his son Harmen from his first marriage, four of these children became painters: Frans Hals the Younger (1618-69), Jan Hals (1620-54), Reynier Hals (1627-72) and Nicolaes Hals (1628-86).
Following Hals success with The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616, he received several commissions for portraits, for example, Willem van Heythuyzen (c1590-1650), a cloth merchant and almshouse owner. Hals painted Heythuyzen at least twice, once in 1625 and again in 1634. The earlier of the two features the merchant leaning on a sword and wearing the typical rich clothing and broad-brimmed hat of the day. The painting inspired several artists, including Judith Leyster (1609-60), who copied the pose for her Standing Cavalier (1630). In 1897, the British politician Edgar Vincent, 1st Viscount D’Abernon (1857-1941), dressed up as Heythuyzen for a costume ball.
Another portrait commission came from Pieter van den Broecke (1585-1640) of the Dutch East India Company. Similar to Hals, Broecke was born in Antwerp but fled to the Dutch Republic after the Fall of Antwerp to the Spanish. During his career, Broecke visited Yemen, where he became one of the first Dutchmen to drink “something hot and black, a coffee.” When he retired, Broecke received a gold chain, which he wears in the portrait by Hals painted in 1633. Broecke spent his remaining years in the Indonesian Banda Islands, where his descendants live today.
Some of the portraits Hals produced were marriage pendants. Man and wife were painted on separate canvases that usually hung side-by-side in the family home. Traditionally, men stood angled towards their left whilst women turned towards their right.
Hals painted marriage pendants of Catharina Both van der Eem and her husband, Paulus van Beresteyn (1582-1666), in 1620. Beresteyn was a twice-widowed lawyer in Haarlem who married his third wife in 1619. Beresteyn and Catharina had six children, including Emerantia and Claes (1627-84), who appeared in paintings by Pieter Soutman (1593-1657) during the 1630s.
The portrait of Catharina is angled three-quarters to the left (her right), which gave the impression she turned towards her husband on the adjacent canvas. Catharina wears a wedding ring on her right forefinger, a lace ruff and wrist collars with gold bracelets. The fashion was typical of the 16th and 17th centuries, although the style of dress originated in Spain. The portrait of her husband featured similar lace material and black clothing.
Unconventionally, Hals broke away from marriage pendants to include both husband and wife on the same canvas. The Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen (1622) depicts the happy couple relaxing in a garden, which also went against the conventional style of 17th-century Dutch portraits. The clothing does not differ from the fashion of the day and the couple look over dressed in the setting to the contemporary eye.
Isaac Abrahamszoon Massa (1586-1643) sat for Hals several times for portraits, but only once with his wife, who he married in 1622. Massa was a Dutch grain trader, traveller and envoy to Russia who created some of the earliest maps of Eastern Europe and Siberia. The Isaac Massa Foundation established in his honour continues to stimulate scientific and cultural contacts between the Russian Federation and the Netherlands.
As well as commissioned portraits, Hals experimented with character portraits that captured expressions of merriment. The Lute Player (1623), for example, depicts a smiling jester playing the lute. He is smiling naturally and looking up to his right as though engaging with another musician or singer out of view.
Portraits of lute players was a new theme at the time, introduced to the Dutch Republic by Dirck van Baburen (1595-1624) in 1622. As well as the first Dutch artist to paint musicians, Baburen also painted card players, thus inspiring painters to move away from generic portraits and genre themes. As well as The Lute Player, Hals produced The Gypsy Girl (1628) and The Laughing Fisherboy (1628), both depicting relaxed, smiling individuals. Some art historians list the Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen amongst Hals more expressive artworks, although the latter was likely staged.
In 1627 , Hals was invited back to produce another banquet portrait of the St George Militia Company. Since civilian officers only served for three years, those featuring in The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1627 did not appear in the earlier painting of 1611. The men in this version are celebrating the end of their tenure.
The man in the centre of the banquet portrait is Captain Michiel de Wael (1596-1659), who Hals painted separately in 1625. As well as his career with the St George Militia Company, Wael was a brewer and the grandson of one of the first Calvinists in Haarlem. Seated at the head of the table is Colonel Aart Jansz Druyvesteyn (1577-1627), a promising landscape painter and future mayor of Haarlem. One of the flag bearers, Boudewijn van Offenberg (1590-1633), had just resigned so that he could marry Beatrix de Laignier. As mentioned earlier, only bachelors could serve as flag bearers. On the far right is another flag bearer, Jacob Cornelisz Schout, who did appear in Hals previous painting from 1611. Unlike the officers, flag bearers and men of significant rank could serve for more than three years.
As well as the St George Militia, Hals painted The Officers of the St Adrian Militia Company in 1633. He first painted the company in 1627, seated around a table in a hall, but his second painting shows the men outside in the courtyard. The officers wear similar clothing to the St George Militia, with colours that resemble the oranje-blanje-bleu flag of the Dutch Revolution.
Whilst all the men in the portrait are named, only a couple earned enough fame to warrant a Wikipedia entry in the 21st century. Andries van Hoorn (1600-60), who stands on the right with the bow of the orange sash protruding from his back, later became the Mayor of Haarlem. He was captain at the time of painting but gained the rank of colonel before his time with the St Adrian Militia was up. Sitting with a book behind Van Hoorn is Hendrik Gerritsz Pot (1580-1657), a Dutch painter who received tuition from the same tutor as Hals. Pot painted a banquet portrait of the St Adrian Militia in 1633 before becoming an officer. Before then, Pot spent some time in London, where King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria commissioned him to paint their portraits in 1632.
In 1639, Hals returned to the St George Militia to paint another portrait of the officers. Rather than depicting them at a banquet, the men are standing in a line across the 4 meters wide canvas. Ensign Dirck Dicx carries the blue flag on the right, and Captain Michiel de Wael stands out by wearing a different colour coat to the other officers. Hals went one step further to make this painting different from the others by including past Militia officers in the background, including himself and Hendrik Gerritsz Pot. Whilst Hals served with the Militia, he never earned a rank, yet the company admired him as an important local artist.
In 1644, Hals became chairman of the Guild of St Luke, a privileged position that signified Hals’ reputation amongst other artists. Unfortunately, his prestige did not make him immune to money troubles. Unlike other painters, Hals did not adapt his technique to suit the fashions and preferences in the Dutch Republic. Instead, his artwork became less lively, focusing more on the stature and dignity of the people portrayed. As time went on, Hals work became darker until he was almost only using monochrome shades. Some art historians suggest this was because coloured paint was expensive, and Hals lost customers to more modern artists. Several times, Hals’ creditors took him to court. In 1652, he was forced to sell his belongings to settle a debt with a baker, leaving him destitute. Fortunately, the government started paying him an annuity of 200 florins in 1664.
Despite his money issues, Hals continued to paint, including a portrait of the board of trustees at the Oude Mannenhuis in Haarlem in 1664. In the same year, Hals painted The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse. The Old Men’s Almshouse, or Oude Mannenhuis, was a home for poor men over the age of sixty. It is likened to an early example of retirement home, providing the men with regular meals and somewhere clean and safe to sleep. The painting is an example of Hals’ later dark, loose style. Although fashions had changed by the 1660s, Hals painted the women in typical clothing from the 1640s.
Frans Hals passed away in Haarlem on 26th August 1666. He was buried in the Grote Kerk, a Reformed Protestant church. Despite his pension and the high esteem in which the city held him, his widow was forced to apply for financial aid and was admitted to the local almshouse. When Hals died, four of his sons were still alive and working as artists, although none of them achieved the status of their father.
Throughout his career, Hals inspired many Dutch artists and took on several students. Rather than teach his pupils how to paint like him, Hals let them develop their own styles and techniques. Today, historians are uncertain how many students Hals had because they cannot use the paintings as a way of identifying Hals as the teacher because the styles are so dissimilar.
Hals’ reputation waned after his death, but he reemerged in the 19th century when impressionist and realist painters studied his technique. Claude Monet (1840-1926), Édouard Manet (1832-83), Gustave Courbet (1819-77), James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) all list Hals as one of their greatest influences. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh wrote, “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.”
In the 21st century, Hals’ paintings are found in cities all over the world, including Antwerp, London, Toronto and New York. Several works belong to Haarlem town council and hang in the Frans Hals Museum, established in 1862. The museum is located on the site of the Oude Mannenhuis, where Hals painted The Regents and Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse in 1664, which hangs in the museum. As well as paintings by Hals, the museum displays artwork by other Dutch artists, including Judith Leyster, Karel van Mander, Hals’ brother Dirck Hals (1591-1656), and Jan Steen (1625-79).
In 1968, the Nederlandsche Bank issued a tien gulden (ten guilders) banknote featuring a portrait of Frans Hals. He remained on the note until 1997 when the bank commissioned new designs. After the Millennium, guilders were replaced by euros. Hals was also honoured by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), who named a 93-kilometre crater on Mercury ‘Hals’.
Until January 2022, the Wallace Collection is hosting the exhibition Frans Hals: The Male Portrait. Whilst it reveals little about the artist, the portraits perfectly demonstrate the subtle changes in Hals’ technique throughout his career. Tickets are available from the Wallace Collection website.