Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum
The Metropolitan Museum has had the fine idea of bringing together the eleven paintings in its collection by Frans Hals (1582/3–1666), along with two Halses in private collections, to form what appears to be, while hardly a true survey, the first concentrated look at this wonderful artist that New York has had. Judged next to the full-dress Hals retrospective held at the National Gallery in Washington in 1989, however, the Met’s show could stand some sparks. It doesn’t clearly and powerfully demonstrate what makes the painter significant.
As Thomas P. Campbell, the Met’s director, notes in the preface to the small catalog accompanying the exhibition, for years one would see a large overhead directional sign at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam that said “Hals—Rembrandt—Vermeer”—meaning, in effect, that Hals was one of the cornerstones of the great era of Dutch painting. For those of us who love his work—and I think he is an artist you love rather than admire—that sign (which apparently has come down) made perfect sense. Hals provides something huge that we don’t get in Rembrandt or Vermeer and that complements them: a quicksilver and empathic responsiveness to people in all their variety.
In a career that lasted some five decades, Hals was always in essence a portraitist. He painted the very wealthy and the burghers and their families of his home base, Haarlem, as well as clergymen, actors, artists, and historians. His sitters included the occasional wild card (such as a witch-like inmate of a house of correction), and he was the first Dutch artist to make working-class boys and girls, who we see smiling, sometimes still on their jobs, the subjects of paintings. Hals made monumentally large group portraits of Haarlem’s civic guards, outfitted in their resplendent military finery, and of the regents of a hospital sitting around a table, wearing sober black and white. The artist’s last group portraits, of the male and female regents of the Old Men’s Almshouse, which are justly renowned for their array of penetrating and reflective faces, some of them old and frail looking, were done in the 1660s, when the artist was in his eighties.
Hals was a painter of instantaneity, of the secular, everyday here and now. He delineates the second when, cast in a precise but never excessive or dramatizing light, a portrait subject comes before us as a breathing character, someone we think we know a little. It is Hals’s feeling for the singular moment, person, and degree of illumination that sets him apart from his peers as a portraitist—whether those who came before him (such as Holbein or Giovanni Battista Moroni in the sixteenth century), or were his contemporaries in Holland and elsewhere (such as Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens, or…
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