‘Dynamic, engaging and likeable’ equally describes the paintings in this catalogue and Dr Xavier Bray, the director of the Wallace Collection. He has a reputation for staging important exhibitions, and for presenting them in new and remarkable ways. The video guide to The Sacred Made Real. Spanish Paintings and Sculpture (1600–1700), Bray’s exhibition at the National Gallery in 2009–10 featured devotional songs performed, with remarkable feeling, by Bray himself. His visitors and readers always find themselves pleasantly surprised.
To judge from this beautifully presented and lavishly illustrated catalogue ‘Frans Hals. The Male Portrait’ (Wallace Collection 22nd September 2021 – 30th January 2022) is no exception. The exhibition focusses on Hals’s portraits of male sitters, daringly so. Hals’s female portraits would made an equally good exhibition but Bray and Dr Lelia Packer, curator of Dutch, Spanish, French and Italian Old Masters at the Wallace Collection, have set themselves a specific task. With a stellar series of international loans they explore the context, pictorial language and technique of Hals’s male portraits, centred on the the Wallace Collection’s most famous painting, the portrait of an unknown man aged 26 in 1624, and known since it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888 as The Laughing Cavalier.
Hals’s work was praised by contemporaries for the same reasons we admire it today. Dr Packer quotes admiration from the Haarlem poet and local historian Samuel Ampzing in 1628 – ‘how dashingly [he] paints people from life’ – and from the writer and poet Theodore Schrevelius in 1648 that Hals’s portraits ‘seem to live and breathe.’ So it is surprising that Hals’s work fell into obscurity after his death. Hals lived, worked and died in his native Haarlem. He did not travel, except to Antwerp in 1616, where he was influenced by the work of Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1557–1640), Jacques Jordaens (1593–1678) and perhaps the very earliest work of Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641). Hals’s work did not travel either. It is largely absent from the great collections of the Eighteenth Century and was not and was not rediscovered until 1865 when the collector Richard Seymour-Conway 4th Marquess of Hertford bought The Laughing Cavalier at a Paris auction for the vast sum of 51,000 francs. The effect on Nineteenth Century painting was immediate, and Hals’s broad, rapid brushwork and informal characterisation influenced painters such as Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne and in England Walter Sickert.
Chapters on technique and materials by Packer and Dr Ashok Roy are presented in the clear lucid style that makes Roy’s editions of The National Gallery Technical Bulletin as accessible and exciting for the general reader as for specialist conservators. With macro-details, x-rays and infrared images Roy describes just how Hals achieved the effects that in 1661 Cornelis de Bie noted in his book of art theory, Het Gulden Cabinet, describing Hals as a ‘marvel at painting portraits… which appear very rough and bold, nimbly touched and well composed, pleasing and ingenious, and when seen from a distance seem to lack nothing but life itself.’
There are fascinating details. The elbow-out pose of The Laughing Cavalier was a Hals trademark, sometimes taken to extreme, with the arm thrust over the back of a chair, and it appears numerous times in his portraits. Packer explains that it not only suggests the insouciance and swagger of young bachelors – as most of these sitters were – gives the painting a sense of movement, but it serves to unify the picture plane, linking our world with the sitter’s, and contributes another element in the painting’s illusion of reality. The Portrait of William Coymans 1645 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) demonstrates all these qualities, from the wistfulness of the expression and the way the sitter intrudes into our space to the technique, where the artist’s brushstrokes are centre stage throughout.
Frans Hals (1582/3–1666) Portrait of William Coymans 1645 © National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
This treatment was revolutionary, and Hals takes it extreme in the portrait of William van Heythuysen leaning backwards on his chair (Private collection).
Painters of the previous generation were expected to make themselves almost invisible – brushwork should never be so in your face – and even the most modern Antwerp painters of Hals’s generation would not have painted a linen collar as schematically as Hals does in the Portrait of William Coymans. Casual genius.
It’s always instructive to compare two portraits of the same sitter by different painters. The catalogue compares a loan from the National Gallery in Prague, Hals’s portrait of Jasper Schade, painted in 1645,
with a later portrait of the same sitter by Cornelius Johnson in the Rijksmuseum.
The London-born portraitist Johnson leaves British art in around 1643, when he relocates with his family to Utrecht during the English Civil War, and has a second career as a portraitist in Holland. Packer reminds us that his style was fashionable, and considered perhaps more modern than Hals’s by the 1650s because he brought with him a flavour of Van Dyck from the English Court.
If the unconscious message of Hals’s portraits is the universality of human experience – these people of almost four hundred years ago turning round, leaning over the backs of their chairs to look us in the eye and find us all alike – this catalogue does something very similar, that Hals might well approve of. Illustrating a group of two art lovers with a painter in his studio because it shows exactly the way a canvas was laced into a strainer for painting on also reminds us that although the methods may have changed the experience of looking at paintings remains largely unchanged. Again this is a picture of us, four hundred years ago.
One of the most recent paintings illustrated in the catalogue, Tam Joseph’s portrait of Jimi Hendrix as Laughing Legend with Stratocaster makes another point about Hals’s universality. The Laughing Cavalier has become so much part of our collective experience that it is a meme. Hals crosses four centuries very easily, and still has much to say to us.
‘Frans Hals. The Male Portrait’ by Lelia Packer and Ashok Roy, published by Philip Wilson Publishers, 2021, 130pp.
‘Frans Hals. The Male Portrait’ by Lelia Packer and Ashok Roy, Wallace Collection exhibition, 22nd September 2021 – 30th January 2022.