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Essay – Frans Hals – Portrait of a man

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Essay - Frans Hals - Portrait of a man

‘How dashingly Frans paints people from life!’ Already in 1628 the Haarlem clergyman, poet and chronicler Samuel Ampzing (1590-1632) praised the portraiture of his fellow townsman Frans Hals,1 as would Theodor Schrevelius (1572-1649) some 20 years later. In 1648, the latter, an historian and schoolmaster from Haarlem, wrote of his contemporary: ‘[he] excels almost everyone with the superb and uncommon manner of painting which is uniquely his […]. [His portraits] are coloured in such a way that they seem to live and breathe.’2 Frans Hals earned his reputation with lifelike depictions and a revolutionary technique, characterised by unusually free and powerful brushwork. Together with Rembrandt, he is rightly considered the most important portraitist of the Dutch Golden Age. Numerous prominent Haarlem citizens sat for him, among them both Ampzing and Schrevelius.3 Here, too, this otherwise anonymous man is depicted in a most true-to-life manner. To avail ourselves of the old cliché: the only thing missing is his breath.

The gentleman, sporting an elegant moustache and goatee, is set against an amber-coloured background. He turns to the right and holds his right hand against his breast – a pose often found in Hals’s portraits. His bearing suggests that he once had a female companion – pendant portraits were popular among Hals’s patrons (compare figs. 1 and 2) – but no such work has yet been found. The face is executed with smoother, more flowing strokes than the clothing and the backdrop, where the brush­work is looser. The lace-edged collar and cuff, for example, consist of nothing more than minimal, accurately placed dabs, with some blue added to the white paint of the cuff in order to suggest the gloss of the material. Like any other portrait painter seeking to satisfy his client, in painting the face it was only logical for Hals to alter his technique in order to achieve an exact likeness.

The man wears a hat with a broad brim and low crown so that the light coming from the upper left casts a shadow over his forehead. He is dressed in a black doublet with a woven pattern of small rosettes and a wide collar edged with bobbin lace and tied with tasselled band­strings. His black cloak is draped over his left shoulder and wrapped around his middle. His attire – of which the collar was undoubtedly the most ‘trendy’ element – allows us to date the picture to around 1637-1640.4 It was in this period that Hals reached the height of his fame, prospering both artistically and financially.

It has been suggested that this oval portrait was once rectangular.5 There is, however, no technical evidence to support this conclusion.6 Hals frequently painted an oval trompe l’oeil frame around his model.7 Only rarely, as here, did he choose an actual oval support for his portraits (figs. 1 and 2).8