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Frans Hals (Antwerp 1581/5-1666 Haarlem)

The head of a boy

Frans Hals (Antwerp 1581/5-1666 Haarlem)
The head of a boy
oil on panel, circular
11¾ in. (29.9 cm.) diam.
William Clinton Baker (1865-1935), Bayfordsbury, Hertfordshire, by 1925, in the Breakfast Room; Sotheby's, London, 18 July 1928, lot 80 (£3,500 to Agnew's).
with Agnew's, London, by whom sold in March 1929 for £5,000, to
Sir Harold Wernher, 3rd Bt,, G.C.V.O. (1893-1973), Luton Hoo, in the Dutch Room; his sale, Sotheby's, London, 24-25 March 1995, lot 67, as 'Follower of Frans Hals', where purchased by the present owner.
H. Avray Tipping, 'Bayfordsbury-II. Hertfordshire. The Seat of Mr H. Clinton Baker', in Country Life, 24 January 1925, p. 129, fig. 13 (shown in situ), and p. 132.
E.I. Musgrave, Luton Hoo - An illustrated survey of the histoic Bedfordshire home of the Wernher family and the Wernher collection of works of art, Derby, 1958, pls. 13 and 14 (shown in situ), 'A very sensitive and vigorous portrait of a boy by Frans Hals is said to have been painted on the bottom of a barrel and only discovered in his favourite tavern many years after his death'.
London, Wildenstein, Loan Exhibition of the Collection of Sir Harold Wernher, G.C.V.O., 1946, no. 23.
Luton Hoo Museum, May-October 1950.
London, Guildhall, The Wernher Collection, 1953, no. 28.
Brighton, Hove Art Museum, Paintings from the Wernher Collection, 1953-54, no. 28.
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Lot Essay

First published in 1925 and lent from Luton Hoo to three exhibitions in the 1940s and 50s, this picture inexplicably eluded the attention of Hals scholars through the course of the last century and went unmentioned in both Seymour Slive's and Claus Grimm's catalogue raisonnés of Hals's work. The picture re-emerged into the public eye when sold at auction in 1995, attributed to a 'Follower of Frans Hals' on the basis of an opinion given by David Roëll (1894-1961), formerly of the Rijksmuseum.
For long obscured by old restoration (at least since the first reproduction of the picture in 1925), the paint surface has only recently been returned to close to its original state following a process of cleaning and removal of overpaint. Although the boy's face has always remained without blemish, the hairline appeared false and disconcerting in its former state because - as is now clear - he is actually wearing a cap perched on the back of his head. In light of its new appearance the picture has been re-evaluated and its rightful position within the corpus of Hals's autograph works has been confirmed by both Professor Claus Grimm and Dr. Pieter Biesboer.

Both scholars propose a date of circa 1640, Grimm pointing to its close relationship with the octagonal Boy pointing, who is also shown wearing a cap on the back of his head, which he dates to circa 1638 (see C. Grimm, Frans Hals - The Complete Work, Stuttgart and Zurich 1989, p. 283, no. 90, and pl. 95). From the late 1630s, Hals can generally be seen to adopt a more sober style and more dignified subjects, but the present work is born out of his most joyful and energetic earlier style. Perhaps an apprentice in Hals's studio, the boy is rendered with vigorous and supremely confident brushwork that characteristically gives the effect of great animation and spontaneity. Adopting a low viewpoint, Hals ingeniously sets the head off-centre in the direction of the strong light source on the left. The exact angle of his head is best indicated by the vertical panel grain. The palpable youth of the sitter coupled with his wistful, upwards gaze, recalls the tradition of vanitas depictions of children blowing bubbles, as if to imply that Hals's subject is pondering the brevity of his own youth and beauty. However, the exact function of the panel is not clear. While the painting of the head is fully resolved, the neck is merely filled in with a preparatory paint layer, giving the appearance of a sketch or a work that remained unfinished in Hals's studio.

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