‘Nor can I let this pass in mute silence, Frans … excels almost everyone with the superb and uncommon manner of painting which is uniquely his. His paintings are imbued with such force and vitality that he seems to surpass nature herself with his brush. This is seen in all his portraits, so numerous as to pass belief, which are coloured in such a way that they seem to breathe and live.’
(Theodorus Schrevelius, Harlemias ofte, om beter te seggen, de eerste stichtinghe der stadt Haerlem, Haarlem, 1648, p. 383)
By the time Schrevelius published his effusive praise for Frans Hals and his work, an encomium written a little over a decade after Hals executed this pair of portraits, the artist had long established himself as the undisputed master of portraiture in Haarlem. Each portrait is clearly dated ‘1637’, when Hals was at the height of his powers and his work was in huge demand. Described by the renowned scholar of Hals, Seymour Slive, as: ‘outstanding, superlative works by Hals, in a nearly miraculous state of preservation’ (op. cit., 1980, p. 3), they are the finest pair of portraits by the artist that remain together in private hands. Their exceptional condition allows a full appreciation of Hals’s revolutionary technique and the remarkably subtle range of his limited palette.
Born to the clothworker Franchoys Hals in Antwerp, by 1591 Hals's family had fled the destruction then being wrought on the Southern Netherlands by Spanish forces and, like many Protestants in their position, settled in Haarlem, which was rapidly becoming one of the leading centres for textile production in all of Europe. In Haarlem, he was a pupil of Karel van Mander, with whom he must have studied until 1603 at the latest. He became a master in Haarlem’s painters guild in 1610, and his earliest paintings appear to have been the type of merry company scenes popularised by his townsman, Willem Buytewech, and frequently painted by Hals’s younger brother, Dirck, in succeeding decades (for a particularly fine example of such a painting, see lot 6 in this sale). By the second decade of the seventeenth century, Hals was chiefly engaged in the production of single, double and group portraits, which would more or less sustain his career for the next half century.
At no point in his career was Hals more fashionable as a portraitist than in the 1630s. The bright local colours of earlier portraits give way to an increased interest in subtle transitions of greys, browns and, above all, blacks. So abiding was Hals’s interest in the nuanced effects of black that his countryman and fellow artist, Vincent van Gogh, enviously described some two-and-a-half centuries later how ‘that Devil Hals has no less than 27 blacks on his palette’. In his portraits of the 1630s, the silvery cast of his earlier portraits became a richer, more golden one, while his pictorial accents become more restrained and his forms simplified, thereby imbuing the paintings with a greater sense of unity. In these respects, Hals was at the vanguard of taste. Similar changes can be discerned in the tonal landscapes of artists like Jan van Goyen and the monochrome banquets of fellow Haarlemers Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz. Heda.
In dress too, Hals’s portraits of the 1630s convey a degree of restraint not readily apparent in his earlier portraits. Gone are the comparatively ostentatious displays of wealth – richly embroidered black clothing, gold-embroidered stomachers, bobbin lace cuffs, ruffs and caps and colourful underskirts – that appear in portraits like the three-quarter-length portrayals of the wealthy Haarlem brewer Jacob Pietersz. Olycan and his wife Aletta Hanemans of 1625 in the Mauritshuis, The Hague (figs. 1 and 2). The apparent simplicity of the anonymous sitters’ dress in the present portraits has led to the supposition that they were Mennonites, a religious sect that made up approximately fourteen percent of Haarlem’s population in the period (see P. Biesboer, Collections of Paintings in Haarlem, 1572-1745, Los Angeles, 2001, p. 14).
Some ten or fifteen years before Hals painted these portraits, the Amsterdam-born Leeuwarden poet Jan Jansz. Starter described in his poem ‘Mennonite Courtship’ the type of clothing that offended Mennonite sensibilities in a fictional account of his courting a Mennonite maid:
She had but look at me to show she was dismayed.
My hair too long, my ruffs unruly,
My cuffs too broad, all starched too bluely,
My breeches too wide, the doublet too tight,
The garters too long, and on my shoes I had roses.
To catch her attention, he changed his clothing and bearing to something she would find more appropriate:
Quite changed in my manners, my speech and my dress.
My coat plain and black, my hair cut short,
My ruff, whitely starched, as flat as a board,
And not a tassel to be seen on my whole attire.
(cited in S. Slive, Frans Hals, London, 2014, p. 172).
Comparison with Hals’s portraits of the Mennonites Lucas de Clercq and his wife Feyntje van Steenkiste of circa 1635 lends credence to the theory of the present sitters’ confessional sensibilities (figs. 3 and 4; The City of Amsterdam; on loan to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Like the portraits in Amsterdam and Starter’s recommendation, here the anonymous woman wears modest white cuffs with minimal lace trimming largely hidden beneath her sleeves, while both sitters don simple, out-modish ruffs. Alison McNeil Kettering, however, has rightly noted that the choice of sober black clothing is linked ‘not with the sitters’ religious affiliation, but with their class and political identification…and their notion of portraiture’s function’ (see A.M. Kettering, ‘Gentleman in Satin: Masculine Ideals in Later Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraiture’, Art Journal, LVI, 1997, p. 43). Indeed, only three years after Hals painted this pair of portraits, he depicted Paulus Verschuur, a wealthy Rotterdam merchant and member of the city’s council –a position that necessitated his membership in the Dutch Reformed Church – in similarly staid attire (fig. 5; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
This pair of paintings would almost certainly have been commissioned to commemorate the anonymous sitters’ marriage. As is traditional for such works, the male sitter is portrayed to his wife’s right, a position of honour and authority. He places his right hand over his heart as a gesture of avowal, while both parties hold a pair of comparatively simple deerskin gloves. A deftly applied muted red stroke on one of the gloves in the woman’s hand offers the only hint of local colour found in either painting. Gloves were costly, fashionable accessories that signified their owner’s wealth and status. For this reason, they were often presented as tokens of love or gifts at weddings, with special pairs given by the groom to his bride (for a full discussion of the symbolic associations of gloves, see M. de Winkel, Fashion and Fancy: Dress and Meaning in Rembrandt’s Paintings, Amsterdam, 2006, pp. 86-88).
Of the 36 pendant portraits identified by Seymour Slive in his catalogue raisonné, the present pair is the finest of only three that remain together in private hands. Though their early history is unknown, at the beginning of the twentieth century they passed successively through several of the most important collections of Dutch paintings formed in the period. First published by Hofstede de Groot in a short article for Onze Kunst in 1911, they were at the time in the collection of M.E. van Gelder at his château in Uccle near Brussels. Van Gelder owned several further paintings by or attributed to Hals as well as Rembrandt’s exquisite Portrait of Petronella Buys sold in these rooms on 7 December 2017 (£3,368,750). Shortly thereafter, they were acquired by the Canadian railroad magnate Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, in whose house they were given pride of place (fig. 6). Only a few years before acquiring the present pair of paintings, Van Horne lent several paintings to what was arguably the finest exhibition of Dutch paintings ever assembled – the Hudson-Fulton exhibition curated by Wilhelm Valentiner and held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1909 as part of celebrations commemorating the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River. In addition to landscapes by Aelbert Cuyp and Philips Koninck, two of the most desirable Dutch painters in the early years of the twentieth century, Van Horne lent his magnificent Portrait of Samuel Ampzing by Frans Hals, now in a private collection. The present pair of portraits must have appealed to Van Horne not only due to their obvious quality, in which Hals’s distinct brushwork can be fully appreciated, but because they presented a different side of the master’s work when compared with the small-scale copper portrait that he had acquired several years earlier.
‘In his exaggerated brusqueness, his risky contrasts, his informal carelessness, there is always the hand of a bountifully talented painter, and even the sign of a certain kind of genius’
FRANS HALS’S LEGACY
Though Hals is today regarded, alongside Rembrandt, as the greatest Dutch portraitist of the Golden Age, his work found comparatively little interest among connoisseurs of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His name is absent from many of the contemporary discussions of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish portraiture, which focus instead on the likes of Sir Anthony van Dyck, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt and Bartholomeus van der Helst. When his name does appear, he is inevitably misunderstood and described as the great London art dealer C.J. Nieuwenhuys did in 1834: ‘several of his works were so negligently executed with regard to the finish; for that reason it may easily be conceived that many amateurs do not esteem them, and thus they are to be obtained at very low prices’ (see C.J. Nieuwenhuys, A Review of the Lives and Works of Some of the Most Eminent Painters, London, 1834, p. 131).
Nieuwenhuys’s claim about Hals’s paintings achieving modest prices at auction in the years before his writing is borne out by early sale catalogues. The highest recorded price for a painting by Hals at a Paris auction before 1800 was 502 livres, a price achieved for a small bust-length portrait of a woman at the 1780 sale of the collection of Jean-François Leroy de Senneville. At the same sale, a landscape by Adam Frans van der Meulen obtained 1850 livres, while a pair of landscapes by Claude Joseph Vernet brought the astounding sum of 5500 livres. Moreover, masterpieces by the most popular Dutch painters in the period like Paulus Potter and Gerrit Dou routinely brought 5000 livres or more, with Potter’s Departure for the hunt (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) reaching the stratospheric sum of 27,400 livres at the 1772 sale of Étienne-François, duc de Choiseul.
While connoisseurs of the period appear to have taken little interest in Hals’s works, artists began to recognise his abilities and import as early as the first decades of the eighteenth century. The great French rococo painter Antoine Watteau, for example, produced at least two drawings after Hals, while, later in the century, Jean-Honoré Fragonard made a drawn copy of Hals’s Portrait of Willem Croes in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Fragonard’s engagement with Hals’s paintings is equally evident in works such as his series of fifteen fantasy portraits executed between 1768 and 1772, their dynamic compositions and vigorous, unblended brushwork have a distinctly Halsian quality about them (fig. 7), one that is equally mediated through sources like Rubens’s tronies and Tiepolo’s oil sketches (for a full account of Hals’s impact on eighteenth-century painters, see C.D.M. Atkins, The Signature Style of Frans Hals: Painting, Subjectivity, and the Market in Early Modernity, Amsterdam, 2012, pp. 201-211).
Hals’s critical fortunes only began to turn in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century when the art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger rediscovered the artist and his work. Thoré, who is celebrated today for his rediscovery of another Dutch painter – Johannes Vermeer – first effused about Hals’s work upon seeing two paintings at the seminal Art Treasures exhibition held in Manchester in 1857. As Frances S. Jowell has noted, the critic enthusiastically described ‘Hals’s consummate mastery and the cheerfulness and spontaneity that emanate from both the subject matter and assumed artistic procedure’ (see F.S. Jowell, ‘The Rediscovery of Frans Hals’, in Frans Hals, exhibition catalogue, New York, London and Haarlem, 1989, p. 64). In short, where earlier commentators found Hals’s works unfinished and the colours insufficiently blended, Thoré insisted that ‘in his exaggerated brusqueness, his risky contrasts, his informal carelessness, there is always the hand of a bountifully talented painter, and even the sign of a certain kind of genius’ (quoted in ibid., p. 65).
Hals’s newly regained acclaim would soon manifest itself in the great private and public collections of Dutch and Flemish paintings. While works by Hals were seldom encountered in the leading French collections of the eighteenth century, in the years that followed Thoré’s rediscovery of the artist, a number of British collectors acquired key examples of the artist’s work. The famed Northbrook collection, for example, only added Hals’s Portrait of Pieter Cornelisz. van der Morsch (Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art) in 1866. Similarly, Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, whose collection now forms The Wallace Collection, acquired Hals’s famed Laughing Cavalier the previous year. Similarly, the first genuine painting by Hals to enter the Louvre was the artist’s La Bohémienne, acquired in 1869, while The National Gallery would not obtain such a work until 1876, when it purchased the artist’s Portrait of a middle-aged woman with hands folded. For its part, The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired its first three paintings by Hals upon the 1889-90 bequest of the collection of Henry G. Marquand, this following an earlier purchase in 1871 of a Malle Babbe, now said to be in the style of the artist. The almost manic American taste for Hals at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would manifest itself in the subsequent gifts made to the museum by Benjamin Altman, Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer, Collis P. Huntington, Michael Friedsam and Jules Bache, which included eight additional genuine works and one now regarded as a copy after the artist.
Realist painters, too, of the mid-nineteenth century responded to Hals’s paintings in a manner and at a rate previously unknown. Having seen Hals’s Malle Babbe (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) on exhibition for the first time in Munich, Gustave Courbet expressed his admiration for the artist in a remarkable copy, now in the Hamburger Kunsthalle (fig. 8). In the second half of the nineteenth century, a startling number of painters produced copies after Hals’s works: Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Max Liebermann, John Singer Sargent and James Ensor, to name but a few. Others, including Edouard Manet, responded more indirectly to the master’s paintings: his Le Bon Bock, for example, exhibited at the Salon of 1873 and today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia (fig. 9), was widely considered a paraphrase of Hals’s paintings. After the critic Albert Wolff suggested that Manet had put ‘water into his beer’, the painter Alfred Stevens retorted that it was ‘pure Haarlem beer’ (quoted in ibid., p. 71). But it was Vincent van Gogh who perhaps understood Hals better than any other painter of the period. In a letter from October 1886, he praised Hals as ‘a colourist among colourists, a colourist like Veronese, like Rubens, like Delacroix, like Velasquez’ (The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, 1958, II, p. 424). Following two centuries of neglect, Hals had, at long last, found his rightful place in history.
‘That Devil Hals has no less than 27 blacks on his palette’
(Vincent van Gogh)