Oh My God

The timeliness of Frans Hals


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Frans Hals is often described as a “loose” painter. You can see what that means in one of Hals’ great paintings currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting is called “The Smoker,” from 1625. You wouldn’t be surprised, though, if someone told you it was painted 250 years later than that. The face of the young man smoking a pipe at the center of the painting is rendered in almost impressionistic strokes. A dab of red here, a curve of yellow there. The collar of the man’s shirt is created with a rough stab of white down the middle of the canvas. The painstaking brushwork of other Dutch masters from the Golden Age is notably absent. That is not to say Hals was sloppy, a crime for which he has sometimes been accused. Hals labored at his chosen craft all life long. It is just that he worked very hard to achieve a looser style. You can see it even in his formal portraits, in works such as “Portrait of a Man” from 1636-8. The face of the man in that painting is rendered with all the precision you might find in a Rubens of roughly the same era. And the expressiveness of the man’s face is reminiscent of Rembrandt. But if you look at the man’s left arm, the one cocked at his hip, you notice that the style devolves (or evolves?) into that of the loose Hals again. The elbow — and the folds of garment around the elbow — are painted with the same rough gestures and impressionistic swaths of color that are so startling in “The Smoker.”

It is sometimes thought that Hals was a man ahead of his time. He never commanded much of a price for his paintings, though he was respected well enough during a life spent in the Dutch town of Haarlem. Hals’ paintings were to fall out of what modest fashion they had enjoyed already near the end of his life, when he was left a ward of the state due to his inability to pay his bills. For a century or so, no one wanted his paintings and they could be had at auction for a pittance. It wasn’t until the mid-19th-century and the birth of Modernism in painting that people really began to appreciate Hals. The Impressionists were excited about his work, particularly that characteristic loose style. Van Gogh was famously amazed by Hals’ usage of 27 varieties of the color black.

Still, I would say that it was his timeliness rather than his timelessness that made Hals a great painter. You see, Frans Hals was born of a generation of painters that had been stripped of their subject matter. It is hard, today, to fully understand the significance of that fact, since we take for granted that paintings can depict anything and that painters are free to explore any subject matter they like.

Frans Hals was born in the late 16th century in Antwerp. Strange and dangerous things were happening in Flanders during those days. A few years before Hals was born, Spanish troops had gone on a rampage through Antwerp killing thousands of citizens in the streets and burning down large chunks of the city. The event has since become known as the Spanish Fury. These were terrible and extraordinary times. The religious wars, kicked off by the Protestant Reformation, were ravaging these lands. The Hapsburg Empire was attempting to hold on to power in the Lowlands. A group of Dutchmen led initially by William of Orange were in open revolt against the Hapsburgs and the Pope.

Frans Hals’ father was a Catholic living in Antwerp. A few years after the birth of Frans, and with the upheaval of the ongoing siege of Antwerp, the whole family had moved to Haarlem and become Protestants. They had chosen sides. Frans Hals’ more than 80-year lifespan corresponds very closely to that of the Eighty Years War, a war in which the nascent Dutch Republic struggled to hold its own against the forces of Phillip II and the Counter-Reformation. In short, most of Frans Hals’ life was spent under the sign of a giant question mark. It was a time of war, the conclusion of which could easily have meant utter destruction for the Dutch cities in revolt. It was a time of revolution in religion, a wholesale remaking of the relationship between man and God. It was a time in which people were forced to question all of their beliefs and allegiances and, in many cases, to begin life anew under circumstances utterly transformed by history. Such was the case for the Hals family.

The Protestant Netherlands where Frans Hals found himself living at the end of the 16th century, as he was just learning about art and painting, was a society that had recently seen the destruction of many statues and paintings depicting religious subject matter. This is known as the Beeldenstorm in Dutch (literally the “statue storm”). In English we call it the Iconoclastic Fury. It was inspired by the back-to-basics standpoint of Northern European Protestantism, which had become disgusted with the decadence and “worldliness” of the Catholic Church. The iconoclasts were looking back to the Ten Commandments. The Second Commandment, after all, proclaims, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.” Many Protestants were suddenly moved to take this Commandment quite seriously. Antwerp’s main church became a notable victim of the Fury when a mob destroyed much of the interior of the church along with all the art displayed there. People were killed, too.

Suffice it to say that if you were making art in the immediate aftermath of the Beeldenstorm, you were doing so with a refreshed understanding of what art can and cannot be about. On one reading of the Second Commandment, there should not be art that contains any images at all. According to more lenient interpretations, the Second Commandment was thought to apply only to works that treated religious matters in such a way as to promote idolatry. Art of a secular nature would be acceptable since non-religious art didn’t require that anyone bow down to it or serve it. You could say, then, that it was precisely because of the religious piety of men like Frans Hals that a fully secular art was born.

The art of Frans Hals is something of a grand experiment in non-religious art, though in no way was it an anti-religious art. It is an art that takes the Second Commandment seriously and that, thusly, pays tribute to God and to the religion of Hals’ Protestant contemporaries precisely in what it does not depict. There are no saints or martyrs or direct portrayals of biblical scenes in the art of Frans Hals. He was pious by remaining silent, by withholding his brush from such potentially idolatrous subject matter. If he was going to address religious themes, he was going to have to do so in an entirely new way.

But what, then, does a painter paint, and how does he go about painting it? That, I think, was the question Frans Hals was trying to answer in his body of work. It is a question that only makes sense when you see it in the proper context. It has sometimes been suggested, for instance, that Hals was a lover of pubs and prostitutes and debauched living, since he often portrayed such things, especially in his earlier paintings. Frans Hals, so the modern viewer of his work might think, glorified the secular world. He was a kind of painterly polemicist for the separation of Church and State. In fact, no such thing is the case. Hals was trying to bring moral arguments into his depiction of secular scenes just as any religious painter would. The problem was that he had to be careful about using explicitly religious imagery and iconography in order to do so. He had to come up with a new language. He had to come up with new symbols. Also, he was addressing a new kind of audience. His paintings would not be objects of prayer and adoration for a large congregation meeting together in a church. The era of church painting and commissions from Rome was over for painters like Hals. His paintings were going to be viewed by individuals. They were going to address single human beings who were, themselves, now engaged in a far more one-on-one relationship with their God, and their art.

For Hals, all the old rules were out the window. Nobody had sufficiently established the new ones yet. I think you can even understand something about his loose style when you think of it that way. It is as if he was breaking things down, all the way to the level of the individual brushstroke, in order to build it all back up again. It isn’t so much that he was painting without rules as that he was painting in search of new rules.

One of the paintings at the Met exhibit is often referred to by the title “Yonker Ramp and his Sweetheart” (1623).

A young man in high spirits, clearly tipsy, is cavorting about with a lady of questionable repute. Her face is red and flushed and she paws at the young fellow in immodest fashion. Let’s think of her as a prostitute. Yonker Ramp is raising a toast to God-knows-what with one hand and cradling a dog’s snout with the other. Is Yonker Ramp a contemporary version of the prodigal son? Are we being shown a scene in which the prodigal son is in the midst of wasting his money and reputation in dissolute living before his eventual return to an all-forgiving father? We can’t be sure. Some scholars seem to think so, comparing the actions and poses in the painting with other works from the time.

One thing is certain: If the painting refers to the story of the prodigal son, it does so without actually depicting the prodigal son. More intriguingly, it suggests that we don’t need to depict the prodigal son of the Bible since we can go out and see the prodigal son right there in our local pub, down the street in Haarlem. And that matches up nicely with a bit of Protestant theology — namely, the idea that we do not need much mediation between ourselves and the truths of the Bible. The prohibition on the kind of religious painting that could be adored (the religious painting of the medieval church) practically forced painters like Hals into the everyday street scenes of his time. Rubens, a painter of the Counter-Reformation, could, and did, work out the imagery of the Prodigal Son in direct depiction of the passages from Luke. Frans Hals had to work out similar themes as he was to find them in the actual experiences of contemporary 17th-century Dutch life. Moreover, he was compelled, theologically speaking, to experiment in this direction. The Protestant teachings with which he was constantly surrounded admonished him to treat creation as he found it. “God,” taught Martin Luther, “writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.” Marrying that thought with the iconoclastic impulses of Dutch Protestantism led to an almost inexorable conclusion for Frans Hals: He would paint the stories, morals, and lessons of religion into the immediacy of the world as it was presenting itself right there in front of him.

The last thing we should probably note is the shock effect in many of Hals’ paintings. The exhibition at the Met gives us, for instance, “Malle Babbe” — Hals’ portrait of a demented woman confined to a local workhouse. It is a disturbing painting of a disturbed woman made all the more disturbing by the knowledge that she actually existed and lived in the same workhouse as one of Hals’ less-than-well sons. The shock effect of this painting is not, I think, to be taken as Hals’ attempt to be lurid for the sake of it, or to shake up the mores of his contemporaries. That is a 20th-century impulse. The shock effect within this work and other paintings by Hals — the leering faces, the intense expressions — is a reflection of the shock that Hals himself was experiencing. It is the theological shock of finding sin right there, redemption right there, blessedness and fallenness right there. It is a new language of painting made possible by the circumstances in which Frans Hals found himself: a Protestant man in a new theological landscape that needed, like all landscapes, someone to paint it. • 22 August 2011