Frans Hals (c. 1581-1666) is one of the most admired masters of the great age of Dutch painting because of the spontaneity of his style and the vitality of his portrayals.
Frans Hals was probably born in Antwerp. It is likely that his parents were among the Protestants who fled from Catholic Flanders to the northern Netherlands after the Spanish took Antwerp in 1585. The earliest evidence of the presence of the Hals family in Haarlem is the record of the baptism in 1591 of Frans's brother, Dirck Hals, who also became a painter.
Between 1600 and 1603 Hals was a pupil of the Haarlem mannerist painter Karel van Mander. In 1610 Hals became a member of the Haarlem painters' guild. His earliest surviving dated portrait, of Jacobus Zaffius, is dated 1611. There must have been earlier works that either have not come down to us or have not yet been identified. Some scholars now accept the Banquet in a Park, destroyed in World War II, as a work by Hals painted about 1610, on the basis of the free brushstroke that characterizes his work.
Some 250 paintings by Hals still exist, of which almost 200 are portraits. Except for two pictures representing the Evangelists St. Luke and St. Matthew, the rest are genre subjects, mostly portraitlike single figures, almost all in half or three-quarter length.
The Merry Company (ca. 1616) shows Hals's early genre style:hot colors, an overcrowded composition, the exuberance of holiday revelers. In 1616 he signed the first of his great group portraits; altogether he painted six civic guard groups and three groups of regents. From the first, he revolutionized the long Dutch tradition of portraying social groups. He devised a series of brilliant solutions to the problem of giving equal emphasis to each figure while relating them in an arrangement that is both natural and compositionally integrated. These works are masterpieces of the baroque style.
Hals was most productive in the 1630s, when he began to simplify and unify his pictures. They now tended toward the monochromatic, a trend that also prevailed in Dutch landscape and still-life painting at the time. The small portrait of Hendrick Swalmius, a Haarlem preacher (monogrammed and dated 1639), shows a striking variety of brushstrokes and a new richness of contrasts between warm and cool tones that Hals began to introduce about this time. He executed commissioned portraits with the same boldness that characterized his genre figures, of which he painted no more after 1640. He built the flesh tones and the blacks and whites of the sober costumes with an inimitable range of nuance.
While only two double portraits by Hals are known today, there are many pairs of portraits. Among the finest of his mature works of this kind are the portraits of De heer Bodolphe and Mevrouw Bodolphe (both monogrammed and dated 1643), which are notable for the liveliness of the characterizations and the related poses of the two sitters.
After 1650 Hals's paintings became increasingly austere in color. The silvery grays and golden ochers that frequently dominated his early palette were replaced by darker tones. The alertness, vivacity, and elegance of the young couple known as the Seated Man Holding a Hat and Seated Woman Holding a Fan (ca. 1648-1650) were by the late 1650s replaced in most of his portraits by more serious expressions and somber colors.
Hals maintained his incisive observation and sure touch to the end. Over 80 years old when he painted the famous group portrait, Lady Regents of the Old Men's Alms House (traditionally dated 1664), he endowed it with a psychological intensity and technical brilliance that have made it one of the most admired works of Western art. His dynamic brushstroke was more fluid and free than ever before.
Though he received important commissions throughout his career, Hals was in financial difficulties most of his life. From 1662 until his death in 1666 he lived on a small subsidy granted him by the burgomasters of Haarlem. But the legend that he led a rowdy life is not well founded. He was a member of a respectable society of rhetoricians and of a militia company, as well as an officer of the painters' guild. His pupils, besides his sons Frans II, Reynier, and Claes, included his brother Dirck, Judith Leyster and her husband, Jan Meinse Molenaar, Adriaen van Ostade, Philips Wouwerman, and Adriaen Brouwer.
None of Hals's followers was able to reproduce the essence of his style. His apparently unrestrained brushstroke always succeeded in defining form. This was not a mere trick or a stylish device that could be imitated. It responded to a basic mode of observation. His fascinating variety of angular strokes and hatching, which give liveliness to the picture surface while they differentiate between the optical effects of different textures, foreshadowed the impressionist way of representing light falling on an object. His ability to communicate a moment of intense living has seldom been equaled.
Strangely, no drawing or print by Hals is known. There is reason to believe that some of his small-scale portraits were intended as models for engravers. There are only two self-portraits of Hals, the first as a member of the St. George militia company, in the group portrait Officers of the Guild of Archers of St. George (probably 1639), the second a small bust-length portrait (ca. 1650), of which a number of copies exist.
The best book on Hals in English is Seymour Slive, Frans Hals (2 vols., 1970). Biographical material is in Michael Kitson, Frans Hals (1965). See also Jakob Rosenberg, Seymour Slive, and E. H. ter Kuile, Dutch Art and Architecture, 1600-1800 (1966).