First recorded as part of the collection of the Anglican hymn composer, Thomas Turton, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge and later Bishop of Ely, this arresting picture has remained little-known among Frans Hals scholars until its recent restoration by Martin Bijl. The canvas, which had been converted into a conventional rectangular format during the 18th century, was restored to its original, probable lozenge shape, while old varnishes and overpaint were removed, revealing the painterly technique and bravura brushstrokes so characteristic of Frans Hals. Each step of the restoration process was carefully analysed, allowing a consensus to be reached by Dr. Pieter Biesbor and Norbert Middelkoop that this is indeed an authentic, albeit partly damaged, painting by the Frans Hals, while Professor Dr. Claus Grimm considers it to be a work by Frans Hals and studio.
Always an artist of great ingenuity and daring, Frans Hals seems to have adopted an unusual lozenge shape, a favourite format of Hendrick Goltzius, for The violinist. Seen from a typically low viewpoint, the violinist tilts his head to listen to the music and opens his mouth, perhaps in concentration or possibly to sing. The body of the violin is boldly foreshortened and cut off by the diagonal edge of the canvas. The tilt of the bow creates a parallel diagonal line while the lower edge of the bowing hand, so fluently executed, is similarly cut off by the format of the canvas, further increasing the sense of movement and spontaneity inherent in this composition. The little finger of the bowing hand is only partly painted and next to it is an unpainted strip of canvas; this indicates that the present edge is the original edge of the composition. The hand that holds the violin is only partly painted and two of the tuning pegs are unfinished. This, combined with x-ray evidence which shows primary cusping at the top right edge, has given Martin Bijl the evidence to reconstruct the original lozenge shape. One of the original pieces of canvas, which was cut and reused to make the rectangular shape, has been replaced again and forms the upper corner.
Dr. Pieter Biesbor particularly comments on the use of Hals' characteristic 'wet in wet' passages, writing that 'it occurs for instance in the hands, the costume and the fancy Burgundian hat of the violin player. Typical for Hals is the way he accentuated the features of the boy's face, the contours of the nose, the eyes and mouth in a most life-like expressive manner, greatly similar to the depiction of the boy in the left of Hals' Family group in a landscape (c. 1622) on loan from Viscount Boyne to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. The hands of the violinist have very similar wet in wet modelling and contour accents as Hals' Merry Lute player (c. 1625) in the Louvre. The violinist probably dates to about 1622-25...in my opinion it is the earliest of the single genre figures Frans Hals painted and predates the so-called Bohémienne in the Louvre and the Merry Lute player in the Louvre. Remarkable is the way Hals keenly observed the pressure of the fingers of the boy on the strings as well as the pressure of the bow on the strings and how he holds his little finger against the far end of the bow to give it some extra support. He must have studied how the violin was played or have known from his own experience. Remarkable also are the pentimenti in the position of the bow and the violin making the painting more convincingly realistic.'
As Biesbor has noted, single-figure subjects like The violinist had just arrived in Holland with the Utrecht Caravaggisti, Hendrick Terbrugghen and Gerard Honthorst. Hals has also been influenced by Lucas van Leyden's celebrated print, Young man with a skull (Bartsch 174). Indeed, the subject of The violinist is also a vanitas of sorts, reminding viewers of the vanity of life: youth is but a brief period of time and - like the sound and beauty of a violin - quickly fades away.
We are grateful to Dr. Pieter Biesbor for his assistance in the cataloguing of this lot.