Frans Hals clearly had an eye for faces, but he doesn’t seem to have been very interested in turning it on himself. Unlike his great contemporary Rembrandt van Rijn, whose some eighty self-portraits comprise a richly inventive visual memoir extending from his young manhood to the year of his death, Hals is generally credited with just two, one of which survives only in copies. The lost original, probably painted in the 1640s when he was in his mid-sixties, appears to be the single occasion on which he devoted a canvas solely to his own features. The other self-portrait is a small image in a work with ostensibly more ambitious aims in view: Officers and Sergeants of the St. George Civic Guard (1639), the last of the grand civic guard paintings with which Hals had first established his reputation more than two decades earlier. Peering over the shoulder of an ensign in the upper-left-hand corner of the canvas, this Hals is simply one member of the company, his marginal placement and muted coloring affirming his subordination to the whole (see illustration below).

Officers and Sergeants of the St. George Civic Guard; painting by Frans Hals, the center figure is believed to be a self-portrait of Hals

Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, the Netherlands

Frans Hals: Officers and Sergeants of the St. George Civic Guard, 1639 (detail); the center figure is believed to be a self-­portrait of Hals

If this small head and torso in fact represent the artist—and like virtually everything else in his personal history, even this sighting remains a matter of conjecture—then it’s a fitting emblem of the dilemma that confronts his would-be biographer. Hals may have become famous for his lifelike portraits, but the only way to depict his own life, Steven Nadler suggests in The Portraitist, is to paint a picture of the social world in which he was embedded. As Nadler acknowledges, this is a book whose subject “all too often…disappear[s] from view.”

Whether Hals’s reluctance to serve as his own model was a matter of temperament or his financial situation is impossible to say: self-portraits, after all, don’t pay for themselves. The written record does little to remedy the problem, especially when it comes to conveying a sense of what he was like. “Other than the paintings,” Nadler observes, “we have nothing by Hals’s own hand: no diary, no letters, no written documents whatsoever,” and the few anecdotes that have come down to us are of dubious provenance. In this respect Hals’s story—or more precisely, his lack of one—most closely resembles that of another elusive Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, a similarity Nadler registers when he cites John Michael Montias’s “masterful study” of the Delft artist, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History (1989), as a model for his own work. As with Vermeer, the biographer of Hals is compelled to reconstruct his life from documents primarily testifying to the activity of others.

Like Vermeer, too, Hals owes the beginning of his present reputation to the pioneering work of the radical nineteenth-century French journalist and art critic Étienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré, better known as Thoré-Bürger, whose enthusiastic promotion of both painters helped to spark their modern revival. But unlike “the Sphinx of Delft,” as Thoré-Bürger famously dubbed Vermeer, Hals needed to be rescued less from the neglect of the intervening centuries than from their faint contempt.

Arnold Houbraken’s influential compendium of artists’ biographies, The Great Theater of Dutch Painters (1718–1721), merely named Vermeer in passing, and subsequent commentaries failed to do even that. When it came to Hals, however, Houbraken spun an entertaining tale of how the drunken artist was plucked from the tavern to dash off a portrait for an unknown visitor, only to be outclassed when the stranger proceeded to paint him in turn. The tale, which culminates in Hals’s discovery that he has been engaged in a pictorial contest with the masterful Anthony van Dyck, is almost certainly apocryphal. So too, for all we know, is Houbraken’s claim that Hals was often “deep in his cups”—a claim that may owe more to the number of vessels being drained in his paintings than to the amount of alcohol he consumed. Still, the idea that the artist’s personal habits were as loose as his brushwork proved irresistible, especially when such brushwork fell out of fashion in the eighteenth century. According to Sir Joshua Reynolds, Hals might have surpassed Van Dyck, had he only possessed “a patience in finishing.”

Meanwhile, some basic facts were lost to history, if they were ever recorded in the first place. We still don’t know, for instance, whether the future portraitist was born in 1582 or 1583, let alone whether his parents, who apparently emigrated from Antwerp to Haarlem sometime in 1586, were Catholic or Protestant, despite the interminable religious conflicts that were roiling Northern Europe at the time. Like many others who fled north in those years, the family may well have left Antwerp because they could no longer worship as they pleased after the city fell to the Spanish in 1585. But the evidence is inconclusive, and though Nadler devotes considerable attention to the shifting political and confessional allegiances of both Antwerp and Haarlem during Hals’s lifetime, the artist’s own faith remains as obscure as his parents’.


There is no record of his baptism, nor were any banns recorded for his marriage to Anneke Harmensdochter in 1610—the same year, as it happens, in which he first figured on the rolls of the Haarlem guild as a master painter. Like Anneke, who died in 1615, the painter’s second wife, Lysbeth Reyniersdochter, apparently came from a Dutch Reformed family, but the banns for that marriage in 1617 merely identify the groom as “from Antwerp.” What we do know, at least by inference, is that the couple were quite well acquainted by the time of the wedding, since Lysbeth gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Sara, nine days later. Eleven more children followed in rapid succession, beginning with a boy named after his father born approximately a year after Sara.

Indeed, among the more documented facts about Hals—as well as the more salient—is the size of his family. Of the fifteen children from his two marriages, ten were still living in 1650, including five sons who likewise took up the profession of painter. But while it’s widely assumed that they trained with their father, the identity of Hals’s own master is at best a matter of informed speculation. Nadler opts for another Flemish emigrant, Karel van Mander, whose present reputation primarily rests on his authorship of the Schilder-Boeck (1604), a survey of painters from antiquity through the sixteenth century that did for the art of Germany and the Netherlands what Vasari had done for that of Italy.

Though the first edition of the book makes no mention of Hals, a biographical sketch of Van Mander appended to a posthumous edition of 1618 lists “Frans Hals, portrait painter of Haarlem,” among the late author’s pupils, and at least two contemporaries appear to have endorsed the claim. To a modern eye, Hals’s vibrant portraits would seem to have little in common with the mannerist history paintings turned out by Van Mander, but the latter’s praise of “the great Titian” offers a possible lineage for the future portraitist’s brushwork, especially since Van Mander also singled out the Venetian master as the best exemplar of the so-called rough (rouw) style for which Hals was later celebrated.

If Hals did learn his trade from Van Mander, however, it seems clear that the older man would only have lamented how the younger one chose—or was compelled—to practice it. Like most theorists of the era, Van Mander ranked portraiture among the lower genres of painting, regarding it a poor substitute for the classical and biblical subjects that had traditionally constituted the pinnacle of the art. The trouble, as he reluctantly acknowledged, was that the Netherlands afforded “little work” of the kind required to train aspiring painters in the higher aspects of their calling. Lacking both aristocratic and church patronage, in other words, but with a burgeoning middle class eager to see themselves memorialized, those who hoped to earn their living by the brush all too often ended up by taking what he termed “this side-road of art (that is: portrait painting from life).”

What Van Mander didn’t say, but what the evidence gathered here suggests, is that making a comfortable income by such means was far from guaranteed, even for a supremely gifted artist like Hals. Nadler’s own assessment of the situation is carefully hedged:

A relatively successful professional portrait painter in the middle of the seventeenth century who was able to keep a steady flow of business could count on earning up to several thousand guilders per year, making him (or her) fairly well-off by contemporary standards.

Elsewhere, Nadler further complicates that judgment by making clear that the price an individual portrait might fetch could vary widely, depending as much on the means of the buyer and local economic conditions as on the skill of the painter. Portraiture might represent a “side-road,” but the route was crowded: packed not only with all those Dutch citizens who hoped to have their likenesses recorded but with the many trained artists prepared to satisfy them.

Nadler partly makes up for his elusive subject by filling his pages with brief sketches of these competitors, as well as of contemporaries who specialized in other genres, like landscape or genre painting. But the economy of the Netherlands and especially of Haarlem in the period occupies him almost as much as artistic developments, and for very good reason: if there is one fact about Hals for which we have abundant evidence—apart, of course, from the artistry visible in the paintings themselves—it is the lifelong precariousness of his finances.


No archival documents figure more routinely in The Portraitist than the records of the painter’s indebtedness. A suit filed in the summer of 1616 demanding payment for two paintings he had presumably acquired for resale was suspended when the court learned that Hals had departed for Antwerp. But beginning with another suit for overdue pay and expenses from the nursemaid with whom the recently widowed artist had left his two surviving children during that sojourn, the bills mount steadily, as if determined to outpace even the remarkable growth of his second family.

Among the items for which he was taken to court for nonpayment between 1624 and 1630 were a fur jacket (three guilders and six stuivers), butter and cheese (seven guilders), bread (five guilders and seventeen stuivers), and shoes (five guilders and five stuivers)—not to mention the twenty guilders in unspecified wages and expenses for which his wife was sued in 1626, the four guilders for “delivered goods” in 1629, or the eleven guilders and seventeen stuivers he apparently owed a workman of some sort that same year. (A skilled laborer in the first half of the seventeenth century typically earned about one guilder a day, the approximate equivalent, Nadler reports, of $60 now.)

The ledger for the 1630s is little better: twenty-three guilders and seventeen stuivers for bread, ninety guilders jointly owed with his brother for an ox, even a paltry four stuivers (less than a quarter of a guilder) in unpaid dues to the Guild of Saint Luke. There were further bills for linen, shoes, and unpaid rent in the 1640s—unlike many painters at the time, the Halses never owned their own home—and from the baker and butcher again, as well as from a local tavern keeper, in the 1650s. (Nadler observes that the latter kind of debt is surprisingly rare for someone supposedly addicted to alcohol.) On a number of these occasions, Hals appears to have compounded his problems by failing to show up in court, but he did settle an overdue bill for which a baker was demanding payment in 1654—a whopping two hundred guilders—with a consignment of furniture and paintings that included one by his own hand, as well as two by his sons.

Though that transaction bears an eerie resemblance to a better-known exchange that took place in Delft some two decades later, the resemblance is misleading—and not because the baker’s bill for which Vermeer’s widow surrendered two of her late husband’s paintings was even more staggering than the Halses’. (At over seven hundred guilders, Montias reported, it amounted to the largest such debt he had ever seen in a Delft inventory.) Married into a prosperous family and with the apparent support of a wealthy patron, Vermeer seems to have been relatively immune from financial worries until the last years of his life, when war with France triggered a sudden collapse in the Dutch economy.

Hals had no such luck—though he also began with an upwardly mobile marriage, his first wife’s relatives made little effort to help, even while she was alive—and the repeated economic downturns sparked by the Anglo-Dutch Wars seem not so much to have occasioned his difficulties as intensified them. The formidable size of his family, several of whom ran up debts of their own, obviously didn’t help. It fits the story the surviving documents appear to tell that The Portraitist’s index has a separate entry under its subject’s name—the only one of its kind—for “Hals, Frans, financial problems of.”

And then, of course, there are the paintings. If it’s really true, as the old maxim has it, that every painter paints himself, then Hals’s portraits and occasional genre paintings betray remarkably little of the anxiety and gloom that the archival record might lead one to expect. On the contrary: among the characteristics for which his work has been justly celebrated is its cheerful animation—a characteristic perhaps best epitomized by the picture popularly known as The Laughing Cavalier (1624) but clearly visible in many others as well. Nadler’s claim that “Hals’s oeuvre…may contain more laughs and smiles than that of any other painter in history” is probably impossible to verify, but it certainly feels true to the accumulated impression that oeuvre produces on the viewer. Though a number of the paintings show figures deliberately engaged in comic performances, the buoyant energy they communicate derives as much from the artist’s style as from the occupation of his models. As one of his early subjects, the humanist scholar Theodorus Schrevelius, later wrote, “There is in his art of painting such a force and life” that “all of his portraits…seem to breathe and live.”

Something of that stylistic energy is already evident in the first of Hals’s militia pieces, despite the formal constraints of the genre. The men who gather around the well-stocked table in Officers and Sergeants of the St. George Civic Guard (1616) may display only the faintest of smiles, but their individualized features and the dynamism of their poses, as one prepares to carve the roast while another turns as if to address his neighbor and a third twists in his chair to face the viewer, provide intimations of still livelier images to come. These were Hals’s own officers—he had joined Haarlem’s Saint George Civic Guard in 1612—and his spirited handling of the assignment evidently met with favor, prompting four more such commissions from Haarlem and one from Amsterdam in the decades to follow. (It’s his third depiction of the Saint George Guard that includes the small self-portrait.)

For reasons that remain typically obscure, the arrangement with Amsterdam, begun in 1633, dissolved several years later in acrimony and lawsuits, when Hals insisted on returning to Haarlem before the painting was finished. But the fact that the company had taken the unusual step of looking outside the city’s limits when they wished to memorialize themselves testifies to the artist’s growing reputation. If you wanted something bold and up to date in civic guard portraiture, these men seem to have known, you sent for Frans Hals.

To a modern eye, however, the portraitist’s signature style may be even easier to discern in other early works, like the large genre painting that the Metropolitan Museum in New York calls Merrymakers at Shrovetide (circa 1616–1617; see illustration at the top of article) or the portrait of Pieter Cornelisz van der Morsch (1616) that now hangs in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Though only the subjects of the former are anonymous, both works depict people jokily pretending to be someone else. Van der Morsch, who belonged to a Leiden branch of the literary and dramatic societies known as rederijckerkamers, or Chambers of Rhetoricians, poses as the witty fool Piero, while the Shrovetide picture includes two stock figures from the comic stage: Hans Worst, whose eponymous sausage dangles from his cap, and a red-faced Peeckelhaering (pickle-herring) suitably attired with a garland of salted fish, eggs, and a pig’s foot, among other suggestive items. The two men form an amorous triangle with a rosy-cheeked and richly dressed blonde—probably a boy in drag, according to the museum’s website—as other energetic revelers crowd onto the surface of the canvas around them.

Pieter Cornelisz van der Morsch; painting by Frans Hals

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh/Alamy

Frans Hals: Pieter Cornelisz van der Morsch, circa 1616

A herring also figures prominently in the Van der Morsch portrait, whose subject looks wryly at the viewer while gesturing with a large specimen: the very embodiment of the Dutch expression iemand een bokking geven—to give someone a herring, or ridicule them. Nadler reports that the artist had registered as a “friend” of the Haarlem rederijckerkamer, and if the Metropolitan Museum is right to suggest that the Shrovetide merrymakers were probably members of the local painters’ guild, who traditionally engaged in such theatrics during Mardi Gras, then Hals may have been directly implicated in their comic performance too. But whatever the biographical facts, the vivid colors and fluid brushstrokes by which these figures appear to have been brought swiftly to life make their own claims to carnivalesque exuberance.

Scholars have speculated that Hals may owe this loose handling of paint to the example of Flemish artists like Jacob Jordaens and even the young Van Dyck, whose work he would have seen on his visit to Antwerp in the summer of 1616—his only documented journey outside the Dutch Republic. Rubens’s studio, with which both Jordaens and Van Dyck were connected, would have been an obvious stop while he was there. Of even more interest, perhaps, than the finished canvases produced by Rubens’s workshop were the small studies known as tronies: anonymous heads, typically based on live models, whose sketchlike character may have helped inspire the “rough” style for which Hals later became famous.

Though Nadler concludes that the portraitist “must have returned from Antwerp a changed man artistically,” that aesthetic education necessarily remains, like so much of his story, hypothetical, with some scholars arguing that Hals developed his characteristic brushstrokes before he headed south. What does seem clear, however, is that he was likelier to give his brush freer rein, at least at first, in genre paintings such as Merrymakers at Shrovetide, or the still more loosely handled images of anonymous persons he turned out in the 1620s and 1630s: Young Man and Woman in an Inn (1623) and The Smoker (circa 1623–1625), for instance, both also at the Met, or the small tronie of a tousle-haired and rosy-cheeked child, his lips parted in a charming smile, that tradition has dubbed the Laughing Boy (circa 1625). (The Mauritshuis in The Hague, which acquired the latter picture in 1968, characterizes it as “the most engaging laugh in seventeenth-century Dutch painting.”)

Presumably produced on spec, such pictures typically sold for lesser sums than commissioned portraits, but they also allowed the artist to experiment—and show off—without fear of offending a difficult client. It’s often assumed that the very looseness of such pictures had the added virtue of making them faster to paint, though the art historian Walter Liedtke irritably dismissed this as a “Romantic notion” that confused the impression of spontaneity with the evidence to be gleaned from the layers of pigment by which Hals patiently built up an image.

To illustrate his point, Liedtke juxtaposed another famous Hals painting from the 1630s known as Malle Babbe with a clumsier version by a seventeenth-century imitator, whose attempt at Hals’s brushwork clearly lacks the nervous energy of the original.1 Malle Babbe is the name of a type, like Mad Meg, and Nadler reports that the picture, whose subject bares her teeth in something closer to a grimace than a smile, is thought to be the last of Hals’s genre paintings: a classification presumably supported, though Nadler does not say so, by the fact that the owl perched on the woman’s shoulder was a common emblem of folly. At the same time, the discovery that there actually was an inmate called Malle Babbe—nicknamed “the Witch of Haarlem”—in the local workhouse raises the intriguing possibility that the picture is also in some sense a portrait, though probably not one commissioned—or paid for—by its model.

And it’s hardly the only Hals painting that hovers ambiguously on that border. If we couldn’t identify Van der Morsch, for instance, we might well view his portrait as an image of a generic Piero, while Young Man and Woman in an Inn, now officially classified as a genre painting, was once called Joncker Ramp and His Sweetheart, because observers thought they recognized a man named Pieter Ramp from another of Hals’s civic guard portraits. Though art historians sometimes imply that you can distinguish the portrait of an unknown person from a genre painting by the degree to which its subject is individualized, the principal difference for Hals was whether his sitter was footing the bill.

Hals’s paying customers represented a range of occupations, from business owners and civic leaders to intellectuals and fellow artists, and no one, including the portraitist, seems to have worried whether they were Catholic or Protestant, or which sect of Protestantism among the varieties on offer had attracted their sympathies. (Unlike Rembrandt, however, Hals does not appear to have painted any Jews, though Nadler, who has previously written on Rembrandt’s Jewish connections, refuses to rule out the possibility.2) But in one respect at least, the political and sectarian conflicts of the period may have been good for Hals’s balance sheet. Though Haarlem had long been renowned for its breweries, the crackdown on religious toleration that followed the triumph of the Orangist party in 1619 meant that the Catholics who had previously dominated the industry were forced to relinquish their place among the city’s elite to a new set of Calvinist brewers, who chose to mark their arrival by having their pictures painted. As John Singer Sargent discovered almost three centuries later, members of a newly ascendant class are among a portraitist’s best clientele.

In Hals’s case, as in Sargent’s, the result could be multiple orders from the same family, particularly if the head of the household, who often went first, was pleased with his likeness. Hals’s single biggest source of commissions was the wealthy Olycan family, which came into civic prominence in Haarlem after 1619, and whose patriarch, Pieter Jacobsz, had made his fortune as a grain merchant before acquiring several breweries. Like Sargent, who undertook a pair of portraits commemorating the silver wedding anniversary of the Jewish art dealer Asher Wertheimer and his wife before going on to paint ten more pictures of the clan, Hals began his immensely productive association with the Olycans—Nadler counts a total of eighteen portraits, either of individuals or a group—with pendants of a wedded couple: not the paterfamilias in this case, but his recently married son Jacob and his wife.

When the young Olycan and his bride posed for these formal images in 1625, Hals still tended to execute his portraits with an attention to detail notably absent from contemporaneous genre paintings like The Smoker, and apart from a few passages in the couple’s elegant costumes, there is relatively little evidence of the animated brushwork we have learned to identify with the Hals style. By the time Jacob’s parents sat for their own portraits at the end of the decade, however, that had clearly begun to change. The canvas on which Hals recorded his first image of the patriarch—the couple ordered a second set ten years later—has since been cut down, but even the truncated version makes a powerful impression: one that manages to convey both the imposing presence of this solidly built man and the sheer vitality he shares with the artist.

Pieter Jacobsz’s slightly parted lips are something of a Hals trademark, giving his faces a potential mobility that more conventional portraits lack—a mobility they obviously share with the brush of the painter. Unlike some of the artist’s other memorable subjects, however, the wealthy beer magnate is clearly not about to smile: he looks far more likely to issue an order than to break out in laughter. Nor is there any of that self-conscious delight in the act of posing that seems to characterize The Laughing Cavalier, for instance—a work that despite its traditional title was probably meant as a portrait of the textile merchant Tieleman Roosterman—or the deliberate swagger with which another textile merchant, Willem van Heythuysen, appears to entertain both himself and the artist in the first of two portraits Hals painted of him.

We can’t really know, of course, whether the faintly ironic effect of the first portrait (circa 1625) is intentional, let alone whether the sitter was in on the joke. But the impression of a shared understanding is difficult to shake, as it is in the second picture for which Van Heythuysen posed (circa 1638), this time tilting back at a rakish angle in his chair, legs casually crossed and a riding whip in his hands.

As Nadler remarks at the outset, “Hals’s people…are fully present,” and this remains the case whether they engage us with the solemnity of a Pieter Olycan or the broad smiles of the evidently inebriated couple in Young Man and Woman in an Inn. Neither introspective and soulful like many of Rembrandt’s figures nor absorbed in their tasks like Vermeer’s, they are instead eminently social creatures, who call forth a corresponding responsiveness in the viewer. We may not know much about the man who painted them, but by eliciting what Ernst Gombrich famously termed the “beholder’s share”—by compelling us, that is, to step back and reconstruct his people out of the broad strokes and dabs on the canvas before us, as if we were participating in the act of creation—the very style that brings Hals’s people to life allows us to feel something of his presence too.