From the collection of Elizabeth Taylor, this lively Portrait of a Man is an exciting recent addendum to the body of work by the leading seventeenth-century Dutch master, Frans Hals. Trained in Haarlem by Karel van Mander, Hals joined the artists' Guild of Saint Luke in Haarlem in 1610. A major figure in Dutch seventeenth-century painting, he is celebrated for his portraits, in which the spontaneous quality of the brushstrokes give his sitters a life-like naturalness. The present work, thought for years to be by a follower of Hals, was listed in the catalogue raisonné of the artist's paintings as 'doubtful', based on the study of black and white photographs (Slive, loc. cit.). Recent first-hand examination by Hals scholars and conservators, however, prove otherwise. We would like to extend special thanks to Dr. Pieter Biesboer for confirmation of the attribution to Hals based on his firsthand examination of the painting (18 August 2011).
Formal characteristics of the work place it in Hals' output from the early 1630s. The position of the sitter and tan background with shadows resembles works by Hals from this period such as his Portrait of Pieter van den Broecke of circa 1633 in Kenwood House, London and the Portrait of a Man in his Thirties (National Gallery, London), dated 1633. Meanwhile, the fine layers of linen cambric in the man's ruff strongly resemble the ruff of Captain Michiel de Wael in the slightly earlier Banquet of the Officers and Subalterns of the Civic Guard of St. George of about 1627 in the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem.
The working method visible in the present work also aligns with that of Hals in this period. To create this painting, Hals applied a thin layer of ground to a prepared canvas, over which he outlined the body and then used under-painting to create contrasting dark and light flesh tones. The paint still wet, he then added individual details, allowing the pigments to meld into each other. In the last phase, he added deep black shadows, such as those that create the contours of the hands and the two fingers. Such a process results in shadows and highlights that are keenly observed, with nuances of flesh-tones and lighting rendered with great ease in Hals' distinctive manner. As described by Dr. Biesboer, 'Most spectacular is the very adequate application of the highlights around the eyes and the nose and the final touches of the brush in deep ivory black pigment in the pupils of the eyes and the separation of the lips, which is so characteristic for the work of Hals and which no other artist was able to imitate successfully'. The monogram, according to microscopic analysis, is original to the painting, further confirming the placement of this work securly among the portraits of Frans Hals.
Most likely, the painting was a gift to Elizabeth Taylor from her father, Francis Taylor. An art dealer, Francis Taylor worked closely with his uncle, Howard Young, a prominent gallery owner in London and New York in the early twentieth century. In the late 1920s, Francis Taylor relocated his family to London where he worked for Young, traveling regularly to New York. Before World War II, the Taylors returned to the United States, settling in Los Angeles, where Francis ran an outpost of the Howard Young Galleries in the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Taylor family lore contains several stories about paintings by Hals. Allegedly, Mr. Taylor found a painting by Hals in 1931 or 1932 in a junk shop on the King's Road in London; by other accounts her father gave Elizabeth Taylor a painting by Hals for her wedding to Nicky Hilton in 1950. The present work, however, entered the family slightly later when the London dealer Agnew's sold the work to the American branch of the Howard Young Galleries in 1954. Presumably, it made its way thereafter to Elizabeth Taylor through her father.
Elizabeth Taylor was a great admirer of Hals. On 8 December 1956, she underwent major back surgery and during her long recovery at Harkness Pavilion of the Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, husband Mike Todd ordered her food from the Colony restaurant and decorated her hospital walls with paintings by Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, and Hals. Talking to the press, Todd reported, 'She really digs the Frans Hals'. Later, the present work held a place of pride in her Beverly Hills home, above a fireplace and next to the iconic portrait of Elizabeth Taylor by Andy Warhol (fig. 1).