The celebrated portraitist and genre painter Frans Hals has been placed second only to Rembrandt van Rijn and, during the past hundred years, to Vermeer in the pantheon of great Dutch painters of the "Golden Age." In the second half of the nineteenth century, Hals was actually the most admired artist in some quarters—especially in Paris, since Vermeer's small oeuvre was still only beginning to be defined, and Hals' bourgeois subjects, his often colorful palette, and above all his bold brushwork became more inspiring to Realist and Impressionist painters than was the venerable model of Rembrandt.
Like many less famous Dutch artists, Hals was actually from the Spanish Netherlands; his parents moved from Antwerp to Haarlem when he was quite young (probably about 1586, and certainly before his brother, the genre painter Dirck Hals [1591–1656], was born). Frans reportedly studied with the Mannerist painter and writer on art Karel van Mander (1584–1606), probably about 1600–1603. He joined the Haarlem painters' guild in 1610 and married about the same time. The earliest known works by Hals are impressive formal portraits of ca. 1612–14, when he was already about thirty years old. From 1612 to 1624, Hals served in the Saint George civic guard in Haarlem; his portrait of that company's officers, of 1616 (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem), was the first of about ten large group portraits that Hals painted for public institutions. The last two, depicting the male and female regents of the old men's almshouse in Haarlem (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem), date from about 1664, when the artist was about eighty-two years old. From the 1860s onward, these works and others by Hals in his hometown museum made Haarlem a mecca for painters such as Courbet, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Sargent, Whistler, Chase, and other masters of the brush, especially from France and America. As in the case of Vermeer, the French art and social critic Théophile Thoré (1807–1869) was an early champion of Hals.
Haarlem had been a fairly cosmopolitan artistic center since the 1580s, with internationally known artists such as Van Mander, Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (1562–1638), and above all the great draftsman and engraver (and, from 1600, painter) Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617). Nonetheless, Hals' Merrymakers at Shrovetide, of about 1616 (14.40.605), is more colorful, painterly, and swirling with surface movement than almost any Dutch painting to date. Its shift in style from slightly earlier works by Hals probably reflects his study trip to Antwerp from about early August until mid-November in 1616. The way the crowded figures and objects on the table completely fill the frame and appear pressed against the picture plane, and are painted in broad, open brushstrokes, with bold colors and shadows rendered in tones of blue and green, recalls works by Rubens of about 1610–15 and early pictures by his young colleague Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), including the Adoration of the Shepherds, of 1616 (66.53.7). In Antwerp, Hals may also have seen oil sketches and impetuously executed history pictures by the teenaged prodigy Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641).
By November 1616, Hals' wife and two of their three small children had died. In February 1617, the painter married a Haarlem woman, who gave birth to a daughter nine days later. Ten other children from this marriage are known. For the next half-century, Hals rarely left Haarlem, where he was a respected and successful but never prosperous citizen. His clients included a good number of burgomasters and wealthy citizens, including leading figures in the local beer and cloth industries. At various times, and especially in his late years, Hals struggled financially, mainly because of the large size of his family and the fact that few Dutch portraitists were well paid.
The notion that Hals' difficulties had more to do with drinking and lack of discipline was first introduced by the inventive biographer Arnold Houbraken in 1718 and flourished in the late nineteenth century. This image of Hals (like Houbraken's biography of Jan Steen) was simply derived from his genre paintings and is unsupported—indeed, contradicted—by documentary evidence. Hals' popular scenes of "everyday life" (which date mainly from the 1620s and 1630s) are in fact highly conventionalized essays on contemporary social customs and the human comedy in general. As a brilliant portraitist, the artist was quite capable of lending his genre figures strongly individualized characters and convincing expressions, as he did in his seductive picture of a country courtesan, The Gipsy Girl (Musée du Louvre, Paris). His pictures of mirthful children and of diverse fisher folk were evidently based on life studies as well (unfortunately, no drawings by Hals are known). However, the majority of Hals' genre pictures, like the Young Man and Woman in an Inn ("Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart"), of 1623 (14.40.602), employ standard types in clever variations. This becomes obvious when one compares the figures (especially the young "ladies") in the canvas of 1623 and a panel of about 1625, The Smoker (89.15.34). Both paintings address the theme of the "Modern-Day Prodigal Son" (the title of a Dutch play published in 1630), while the earlier one recalls a contemporary adage: "the nuzzle of dogs, the affection of whores, and the hospitality of innkeepers: None of it comes without cost." The theme of frivolous youth was topical in the Dutch Republic, at a time when the older generation complained (like postwar parents in America) that their spoiled kids knew nothing of hardship and earning one's keep.
Despite the great reputation of Hals' best known genre scenes and group portraits, the essence of his achievement is found in portraits of individuals, as in the Portrait of a Man, possibly Nicolaes Pietersz Duyst van Voorhout, of about 1636–38 (49.7.33). The confident pose repeats that found in Hals' famous picture The Laughing Cavalier, of 1624 (Wallace Collection, London), which is actually a formal portrait in which the dignified gentleman faintly smiles. In the later portrait, broadly brushed highlights suggest the shine of the satin jacket and the naturalistic effects of daylight, atmosphere, and movement all at once. In addition, almost every stroke in the figure (but especially in the face) contributes to the impression of modeling and space, a fact that Hals' contemporary imitators, later emulators, and many critics have misunderstood. The idea that Hals executed his pictures rapidly, advanced already by Houbraken in 1718, is nonsensical to conservators and close viewers of his technique. What a few contemporaneous observers described as the impression of "life itself" in Hals' work was arrived at with virtuoso flair but also careful control, and with an eye to the impression made by the work at a normal viewing distance and in the light of a seventeenth-century interior. Comparisons with the flattening effects of Manet reveals at once great admiration of Hals (and Velázquez) and a different concept of representation.
What is more comparable with the achievement of later portraitists is Hals' ability in his single portraits to suggest distinctive personalities. Whether in the dashing portraits of the 1630s or the more sober examples of the next three decades (as in the Paulus Verschuur, of 1643; 26.101.11), Hals conveys individuality more convincingly than almost any artist of the time, except Rembrandt. More than a century later (in 1774), Sir Joshua Reynolds, who esteemed Rubens, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt, told students of the Royal Academy in London that Hals' "composition of the face"—no doubt meaning mainly the handling of the eyes and mouth—produced "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." Of course, this ability is not equally evident in every work. Many of Hals' portraits suggest friendliness, preoccupation, or reserve, without giving away much about the person. The emphasis placed in modern times on personal thoughts and feelings was barely beginning in the seventeenth century, with exceptional authors such as Shakespeare and John Donne. Hals' wonderful portraits of married couples and families (like the large group portrait in the Museo Thyssen-Bornesmisza, Madrid) convey a strong sense of individuality but are essentially about the institution of marriage. Similarly, many of Hals' sitters wanted to be portrayed as representatives of a certain type or class. It is precisely in this context of strong social conventions that Hals' frequently compelling sense of individual character is so remarkable.