In 1872 Henry James described the painting as "dashed upon the canvas by a brush superbly confident." Hals's authorship has been discounted since the 1880s but the picture must be by a close follower, and is based upon Hals's Malle Babbe of the early 1630s (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) or a lost version of that composition. The title comes from an old inscription on the back of the Berlin painting and may be the nickname of a Haarlem personality. In the seventeeth century, owls were often associated with fools or vulgar behavior. A Dutch proverb, "drunk as an owl," is recalled by the woman's large tankard in the canvas in Berlin.
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Artist:Style of Frans Hals (Dutch, second quarter 17th century)
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions:29 1/2 x 24 in. (74.9 x 61 cm)
Credit Line:Purchase, 1871
Although this picture was one of the proudest trophies in the Museum's founding purchase of 1871, it was doubted as a work by Hals as early as 1883, when Bode described it as a free repetition by Frans Hals the Younger (1618–1669) after the Malle Babbe of about 1633–35 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) by his father. Slive has repeatedly dismissed Frans Hals the Younger from consideration, and believes it possible that The Met's canvas is "a copy of a lost original". Liedtke has compared the painting to works ascribed to Hals's sons Harmen (1611–1669) and Jan (ca. 1620–1654), and to other artists in Hals's circle, and like Slive is unable to offer a plausible attribution. The picture is superficially impressive for its bold execution, but it lacks Hals's sense of form and interest in actual observation. The work would appear to date from not long after Hals introduced the subject into the art world of Haarlem, that is, from the second half of the 1630s or the 1640s.
The subject of Hals's autograph work and this related canvas was a Haarlem woman confined in the local workhouse (which was both a house of correction and a charitable institution). The owl was a common symbol of folly in the Netherlands.
Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, Broadlands, Romsey, Hampshire (in about 1805); [Léon Gauchez, Brussels, until 1870]; [Léon Gauchez, Paris, and Alexis Febvre, Paris, 1870; sold to Blodgett]; William T. Blodgett, Paris and New York (1870–71; sold half share to Johnston); William T. Blodgett, New York, and John Taylor Johnston, New York (1871; sold to The Met)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Temporary Exhibition," April 1906, no. 12 (as "Hillebobbe van Haarlem," by Frans Hals).
Haarlem. Frans Halsmuseum. "Frans Hals Tentoonstelling," July 1–September 30, 1937, no. 62 (as "Malle Babbe").
Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 4–November 23, 1947, unnumbered cat.
Iowa City. State University of Iowa, School of Fine Arts. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 9–March 31, 1948, unnumbered cat.
Bloomington. Indiana University. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," April 18–May 16, 1948, no catalogue.
Louisville. J. B. Speed Art Museum. "Old Masters from the Metropolitan," December 1, 1948–January 23, 1949, no catalogue.
Madison. Memorial Union Gallery, University of Wisconsin. "Old Masters from the Metropolitan," February 15–March 30, 1949, unnumbered cat.
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. "Old Masters from the Metropolitan," April 24–June 30, 1949, no catalogue.
Hempstead, N. Y. Hofstra College. "Metropolitan Museum Masterpieces," June 26–September 1, 1952, no. 17.
Haarlem. Frans Halsmuseum. "Frans Hals," 1962, no. 31.
Museo de Bellas Artes de Caracas. "Grandes Maestros," November 5–December 17, 1967, no. 9.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum," July 26–October 10, 2011, no catalogue.
George Alexander Cooke. Itinerary, Hampshire. [ca. 1805], p. 66 [see correspondence of November 21, 2002 in archive file], lists "Old Woman, a sketch by Fr. Hals" as in the dressing room at Broadlands.
Paul Mantz inHistoire des peintres de toutes les écoles: École flamande. Paris, 1864, unpaginated, mentions a painting by Hals of an old woman with an owl which was etched by Coclers.
W. Bürger [Théophile Thoré]. "Frans Hals (2e et dernier article)." Gazette des beaux-arts 24 (May 1868), p. 443, quotes from Ref. Mantz 1864, identifying the sitter as "Hille Bobbe".
W. Bürger [Théophile Thoré]. "Nouvelles études sur la galerie Suermondt (2e article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 2nd ser., 1 (February 1869), p. 163, in discussing the painting in the Suermondt collection (now Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), mentions another version painted by Hals and engraved by Coclers, noting the inscription which appears on the engraving.
C[arl]. v[on]. Lützow. "Hille Bobbe van Haarlem." Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst 5 (1870), p. 78.
Jules-Ferdinand Jacquemart. Etchings of Pictures in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. London, 1871, pl. , as by Hals.
[Henry James]. "Art: The Dutch and Flemish Pictures in New York." Atlantic Monthly 29 (June 1872), p. 758 [reprinted in John L. Sweeney, ed., "The Painter's Eye," London, 1956, pp. 55–56], as "Hille Bobbe of Haarlem" by Frans Hals.
Louis Decamps. "Un musée transatlantique (3e article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 2nd ser., 6 (December 1872), p. 476, finds it superior to the Suermondt version.
Henry Havard. "Les chefs-d'oeuvre de l'école hollandaise exposés à Amsterdam en 1872 (1er article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 2nd ser., 6 (September 1872), p. 221.
Wilhelm [von] Bode. Studien zur Geschichte der holländischen Malerei. Braunschweig, 1883, p. 103, calls it a free repetition by Frans Hals the Younger after his father's work.
Emil Kegel. "Berichte und Mittheilungen aus Sammlungen und Museen, über staatliche Kunstpflege und Restaurationen, neue Funde: New-York, das Metropolitan-Museum." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 7 (1884), p. 461.
E. W. Moes. Iconographia Batava: Beredeneerde Lijst van Geschilderde en Gebeeldhouwde Portretten van Noord-Nederlanders in Vorige Eeuwen. Vol. 1, Amsterdam, 1897, p. 88, no. 748-2.
Charles H. Caffin. "Pictures at the Metropolitan Museum." Harper's Monthly Magazine 104 (January 1902), p. 274, as "Hille van Bobbe".
Gerald S. Davies. Frans Hals. London, 1902, p. 144, lists it as "Hille Bobbe (?), probably by Frans Hals, the son".
E[rnst]. W[ilhelm]. Moes. Frans Hals, sa vie et son œuvre. Brussels, 1909, pp. 64–65, 111, no. 261, believes that "Hille Babbe" is a more exact form of the sitter's name.
Cornelis Hofstede de Groot. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Edward G. Hawke. Vol. 3, London, 1910, p. 30, no. 109.
Handbook of the Benjamin Altman Collection. New York, 1914, p. 29, under no. 19, p. 34, under no. 23.
Wilhelm von Bode, ed. Frans Hals: His Life and Work. Berlin, 1914, vol. 1, p. 34, no. 69, pl. 32A, as "Malle Babbe".
William M. Chase. "Notes from Talks by William M. Chase." American Magazine of Art Ed. Frances Lauderbach. 8 (September 1917), p. 437.
François Monod. "La Galerie Altman au Metropolitan Museum de New-York (2e article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 5th ser., 8 (November 1923), p. 302, as "une 'Hille Babbe' de Frans Hals le Jeune (?)".
Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Frans Hals, des meisters Gemälde. 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1923, p. 316, ill. p. 141, dates it about 1635–40 and calls it probably the pendant to "The Merry Drinker" (Gemäldegalerie, Kassel).
Handbook of the Benjamin Altman Collection. 2nd ed. New York, 1928, p. 62, under no. 28, p. 63, under no. 29.
Franz Dülberg. Frans Hals: Ein Leben und ein Werk. Stuttgart, 1930, pp. 132, 134.
Bryson Burroughs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Catalogue of Paintings. 9th ed. New York, 1931, p. 152, attributes it to Frans Hals the Younger, stating that "most authorities, including Bode and De Groot, consider the Museum's picture the work of someone close to Hals, probably Frans Hals the Younger".
W. R. Valentiner. Frans Hals Paintings in America. Westport, Conn., 1936, no. 57, ill. [cat. section unpaginated].
Ella S. Siple. "Paintings from American Collections Now on Loan in the Frans Hals Museum at Haarlem." Burlington Magazine 71 (August 1937), p. 90.
M. M. van Dantzig. Frans Hals: Echt of onecht. Amsterdam, 1937, p. 103, no. 97, calls it a later imitation.
G. D. Gratama. "Frans Hals-tentoonstelling." Historia 3 (July 1937), pp. 6, 15, ill. p. 7.
N. S. Trivas. The Paintings of Frans Hals. New York, 1941, p. 36, no. 33b, calls it a copy by a contemporary of Hals after the painting in Berlin.
Josephine L. Allen and Elizabeth E. Gardner. A Concise Catalogue of the European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1954, p. 46.
Frederic Taubes. "Your Paint." American Artist 22 (December 1958), p. 60, ill.
Seymour Slive. Frans Hals. Exh. cat., Frans Halsmuseum. [Haarlem], , p. 49, no. 31, fig. 5 (color), calls it closest of all the pictures of this subject to the painting in Berlin, but adds that "whether it is by the master himself or a brilliant follower is debatable"; rejects the attribution to Frans Hals the Younger and also the idea that the picture is a pendant to the painting in Kassel [see Ref. Valentiner 1923].
"Twee maal Malle Babbe." Het Vaderland (September 19, 1962), p. 1, ill., illustrates it hanging next to the Berlin painting in the Haarlem exhibition.
Seymour Slive. "On the Meaning of Frans Hals' 'Malle Babbe'." Burlington Magazine 105 (October 1963), p. 435, calls it a "problematic version" of the painting in Berlin; discusses the symbolism of the owl.
Introduction by Axel von Saldern inTriumph of Realism. Exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn, 1967, pp. 36, 73, under no. 44.
Pierre Descargues. Hals. Geneva, 1968, p. 64.
Erich Herzog. Die Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Kassel. Hanau, 1969, p. 85, under no. 44, suggests that it may be the painting paired with the Kassel picture depicted in two works by Jan Steen (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; Apsley House, London).
Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 43 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].
Seymour Slive. Frans Hals. Vol. 1, Text. London, 1970, pp. 146, 151, figs. 146, 156 (overall and detail), calls it "the invention of a gifted follower or a copy after a lost original".
Denys Sutton, ed. Letters of Roger Fry. New York, 1972, vol. 1, p. 255 n. 1 to letter no. 177 (March 2, 1906), lists it among works included in the 1906 exhibition.
Seymour Slive. Frans Hals. Vol. 3, Catalogue. London, 1974, pp. 140–41, no. D34, fig. 155, states that the Coclers etching represents either the MMA painting or another version of it; suggests that it may be by the same anonymous artist responsible for paintings of fishergirls in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, and the Cincinnati Art Museum; notes that there was a poor copy of the MMA picture in a private collection in Rumson, New Jersey, in about 1960.
E. C. Montagni inL'opera completa di Frans Hals. Milan, 1974, pp. 95, 119, no. 339, ill.
Cornelia Moiso-Diekamp. Das Pendant in der holländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts. PhD diss., Universität Köln. Frankfurt, 1987, pp. 332–34, under no. B1.
Mary Ann Scott. Dutch, Flemish, and German Paintings in the Cincinnati Art Museum: Fifteenth through Eighteenth Centuries. Cincinnati, 1987, p. 64, under no. 22.
Seymour Slive inFrans Hals. Ed. Seymour Slive. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington. London, 1989, p. 216, under no. 31, pp. 238–39, under no. 37, fig. 37c.
Walter Liedtke. "Dutch Paintings in America: The Collectors and Their Ideals." Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis, The Hague. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1990, p. 33, fig. 19.
Colnaghi in America: A Survey to Commemorate the First Decade of Colnaghi New York. Ed. Nicholas H. J. Hall. New York, 1992, pp. 20–21, fig. 20.
Christiane Stukenbrock. Frans Hals—Fröhliche Kinder, Musikanten und Zecher: Eine Studie zu ausgewählten Motivgruppen und deren Rezeptionsgeschichte. PhD diss., Universität Köln. Frankfurt am Main, 1993, pp. 156–59, 161–63, 167, 209, 225, 250, fig. 59.
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 303, ill.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. inJan Steen: Painter and Storyteller. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1996, p. 153 n. 9, under no. 16.
Katharine Baetjer. "Buying Pictures for New York: The Founding Purchase of 1871." Metropolitan Museum Journal 39 (2004), pp. 173, 178–79, 182, 193 n. 67, pp. 197, 217–18, 244–45, appendix 1A no. 144, ill. p. 217 and figs. 30, 31 (floor plan), 34 (installation photograph).
Esmée Quodbach. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Summer 2007), pp. 5, 7, fig. 4 (color).
Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. ix, 299–302, no. 69, colorpl. 69, dates it to the second half of the 1630s or the 1640s, "not long after Hals introduced the subject into the art world of Haarlem".
Walter Liedtke. "Frans Hals: Style and Substance." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 69 (Summer 2011), p. 27, fig. 28 (color).
Christopher D. M. Atkins. The Signature Style of Frans Hals: Painting, Subjectivity, and the Market in Early Modernity. Amsterdam, 2012, pp. 172–73, 271 nn. 50–51, fig. 99 (color).
Important Old Master Paintings from the Eric Albada Jelgersma Collection. Christie's, London. December 6, 2018, p. 57, under no. 10.
This painting or a version of it (Slive 1974) was etched in reverse by Louis Bernard Coclers (1741–1817) with the inscription: "Babel van Harlem / uw uil schijne u een valk, O Babel! 'k ben te vreen / Speel met een valsche pop, gij zijt het alleen" (Babel of Haarlem, to you, your owl is a falcon. O Babel, I am glad of it. Play with an illusion. You are not alone).
Etched by Jules-Ferdinand Jacquemart in 1871.
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