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Foto: Rijksmuseum/Albertine Dijkema

Independent, bon vivant and frivolous: Frans Hals makes “simply happy”

Toon Meijerink ,
12 april 2024 - 11:55

Until June 9th, the Rijksmuseum is hosting an exhibition of no less than 50 works by “the most heartwarming” painter of the sixteenth century: Frans Hals. Emeritus professor Frans Grijzenhout, who teaches a course in Spui25 about his favourite artist, has been to the exhibition six times. He gives Folia an overview of the “jovial” artist.

What makes Frans Hals so famous and special?

“I see in Hals an artist who enjoyed life, possibly a Burgundian who loved good food and - according to some sources - too much wine. In addition, Hals had a loose way of painting, as the Rijksmuseum rightly emphasizes in the exhibition. That is, you can clearly see his free brushstrokes. By contrast, in the early seventeenth century it was customary to paint neatly. From his teacher Carel van Mander, the young painter from Haarlem, who as a small child had fled from Flanders with his parents, was probably told that loose brushwork was much more difficult than accurate painting. But Hals painted with loose brushstrokes from the start. He must have been an independent spirit. Some contemporaries even called him “frivolous.”


Wild, independent, frivolous. Didn’t that spell poverty for a painter?

“It was probably not so bad in the case of Hals. The painter remained in Haarlem almost all his life, with a brief, unsuccessful foray into Amsterdam. Haarlem was home to his clientele, for whom, for an average of €60 per person painted, he produced as many as 6  to 10 paintings a year. With about 400 guilders a year, the Catholic artist had to support his wife and about 10 children as well. But I think he did what he liked and was good at it. So he may not have become as wealthy as a rich painter like his contemporary, Peter-Paul Rubens, but he certainly wasn’t poor, either.


“Hals’ regular income from his studio did not stand in the way of his own way of painting. After all, his cheerful style was his unique selling point. Some men - women, after all, often wanted to be painted more traditionally beautiful and serious - are depicted in Hals’ paintings happily bent over an armrest, rocking on a chair, or smiling broadly. Well-to-do men, for Hals’s style usually depicted soberly and seriously, apparently actually considered it a status symbol to pose in Hals’s latest, artistic fads, and then also to have a real ‘Hals’ in their homes.”

Foto: Rijksmuseum/Albertine Dijkema
The laughing cavalier

A fairly contented life for Frans Hals, in other words. Does he also convey that cheerfulness in the Rijksmuseum’s masterpieces?

“For example, I love ‘The Laughing Cavalier,’ a work that normally hangs prominently in London, but is now in the exhibition. That embroidery, that look, that attitude. Who was this man? Smiling, yet also exuding some disdain. Was he a nice nobleman or a terrible person?


“Hals also drew other, often rather small paintings that anyone could buy on the market to earn a little extra. A ‘Malle Babbe’ - a mentally disabled woman; smiling, wide-eyed fishermen’s boys; and a stage actor painted black. Certainly the later, even looser works are my favorites.

Frans Grijzenhout

Emeritus Professor of Art History Frans Grijzenhout specialized in 17th-century art for more than 11 years. Most of Grijzenhout’s research was on Frans Hals, such as the relationship between Hals and some of the Anabaptists depicted in his paintings. Earlier, the former UvA professor also gave an open program on Vermeer in Spui25. This year, for a fee, anyone can take a course from him on Frans Hals.

“I also really like the ‘Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen.’ Normally couples were portrayed seriously and detached from each other. But Hals portrayed these two sitting next to each other in an extremely relaxed manner. So sweet, actually, as both are smiling, she with her hand resting on his shoulder. And with the woman at the centre of this fantastic portrait.”


With so many extraordinary paintings, how does the Rijks handle it?

“I do think it’s a little unfortunate that ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ doesn’t stand out as vividly. Maybe that has to do with lighting. And the final rain pieces don’t quite come into their own because of the tight space. But there is an awful lot of his finest work on display. I keep bringing everyone I know to the exhibition. Such a large monograph is unique. Although I would have liked to see a work by Hals’ younger brother Dirk, also a painter, for comparison. But that is up to the Rijksmuseum.”

In any case, no fewer than 50 typical works are now on display. But does his characteristic loose style fit in with our current, austere lives?

“I don’t think it’s for nothing that the exhibition of Johannes Vermeer sold as many as 900,000 tickets. For the current exhibition on Frans Hals, so far, within two months, 200,000 tickets have been sold. People are possibly looking more for stillness and balance. You find that tranquility more in Vermeer’s paintings. Vermeer’s works are almost philosophical, with complicated male-female relationships, perfect spatial proportions, and yet some pretense. Hals was not so complicated. Perhaps that is why not much research has been done on him. Bookshelves have been written about Vermeer, and bookshelves about Rembrandt. Yet it was Hals who, with his loose touch, portrayed people extremely well, although he did not have the profound references of Vermeer. But in doing so, he did prove an inspiration to 19th-century Impressionists like Monet, Manet, and Renoir, who also created art with very loose brushstrokes.”


So in 2024, can Hals teach us more than other painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt?

“Rembrandt comes across to me as a troubled man. His work was certainly layered and referenced the paintings of other artists, and his paintings require more thought. Although he may have learned from Hals’ loose painting style, Rembrandt sought boundaries and went beyond them, but he also eventually went under. Rembrandt was enormously ambitious, wanted to record great historical pieces, and was always eager to become world famous. Hals didn’t feel that pressure, I think. He didn’t ask the world, or himself, so many difficult questions. He just did what he was good at, all his life, and you can see that in his heartwarming paintings. He was content with his existence. Frans Hals just simply makes you happy.”