Frans Hals’s highly original Two Fisherboys first came to light in 1935 and while it was exhibited widely over the course of the next decade, the picture was not seen again in public after 1944 and has only been known to scholars since then by virtue of black and white photographs. In 1937, shortly after its purchase at Christie’s by the grandmother of the present owners, the picture returned to Holland, to be included in a Hals exhibition to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Frans Hals Museum (fig. 1). The museum’s then director Gerrit David Gratama hailed Two Fisherboys as an ‘extraordinarily beautiful work by Frans Hals […] in extremely fine condition and of the most excellent quality’ (private communication, 18 January 1936). His contemporary, the scholar Wilhelm Valentiner, agreed, writing in August 1936 that he considered the picture ‘one of his [Hals’s] best genre paintings, of extraordinary coloristic vigor [sic.] and in an excellent state of preservation’ (private communication). In spite of this praise and perhaps because of the undeniably ‘extraordinary coloristic vigor’ of the picture, Seymour Slive, who was the last scholar to publish the work, dismissed it on the basis of photographs as a nineteenth century pastiche, without ever seeing it in the original (op. cit.). A recent restoration, technical analysis and reappraisal by scholars of Two Fisherboys has re-affirmed its place as one of Hals’s most striking genre paintings.
The picture belongs with a small number of half-length, life-size paintings of fisherfolk and children that Seymour Slive regarded as the first pictures to feature working children as their principal subject. This group consists of the Laughing Fisherboy (fig. 2; Burgsteinfurt, Prince zu Bentheim und Steinfurt); Fisherboy (fig. 3; Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten); Fisherboy (fig. 4; Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland); Fishergirl (New York, Private collection); all generally dated to the first years of the 1630s. Pieter Biesboer regards Two Fisherboys as possibly the earliest of the group, datable to circa 1627, while Norbert Middelkoop has proposed 1627-30. Claus Grimm has traditionally omitted all of the Fisherchildren pictures from Hals’s oeuvre so it is noteworthy that he largely accepts Two Fisherboys, recognising Hals’s hand in the faces and hats of the boys. He regards it as the outstanding work in the group, proposing a slightly later dating of 1634-37 (private communication). In all these pictures by Hals, the children are each noteworthy for their smiling countenance, apparently bursting with happiness and health, unoppressed by their work on the beaches. The most plausible interpretation for them, as first proposed both by Slive and Julius Held, is that the children offered striking reminders of the virtues of a simple, natural life at the seashore as opposed to a mercantile life in the towns; that ‘life and work at the seashore, where one can be happy and free, is preferable to the pomp of town life, a variation on a theme familiar in Dutch and arcadian poetry since the turn of the century’ (S. Slive, Frans Hals, exhibition catalogue, London, Royal Academy, 1989, p. 232).
The inclusion of a second child in the picture adds a sense of narrative with the smiling boy holding a crab in his fingertips behind the back of the boy in profile. Grimm has likened the scene to one of the earliest Italian genre pictures - Annibale Carracci’s Two Children Teasing a Cat (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. no. 1994.142), which could conceivably have been known to Hals in print form. Like Carracci, Hals demonstrates both his spontaneity in the children’s conflicting expressions and his mastery for narrative progression, here literally suspended by the impending fall of the crab. The transience of the moment is as fleeting as the playful smile on the boy’s face, a snapshot of the irresistible merriment found in human nature.
Certainly Hals seems to have adapted his style for these works, painting with a new found spontaneity and freedom, unrestricted by the constraints of his portrait commissions. The muted black and white palette that dominate his portraits is abandoned in favour of bold primary colours, the stern demeanour of his pallid patrons replaced with fresh, sun-tanned faces and the paintings themselves executed with remarkable confidence and bold attacking brushwork. In Two Fisherboys, the inclusion of a second child seen in profile is further evidence of the artist’s experimentation, devising a composition that would have been inconceivable in the context of a portrait commission. Two Fisherboys was probably painted in a single sitting, bar a second course to add details and highlights. The landscape element was added separately, probably by another hand which both Biesboer and Middelkoop attribute to Hals’s Haarlem contemporary Pieter de Molijn. With a restricted palette of greens, yellows, greys, browns and blues, the work is marked by expressive, softened outlines and broad painterly strokes, giving prominence to the sky.
The undeniably ‘modern’ appearance of Two Fisherboys has prompted a recent technical analysis in order to establish the age of the paint materials. Pigment analysis conducted both by Professor Jaap Boon (JAAP Enterprise for Art Scientific Studies, Amsterdam), and Francis Eastaugh (Art Analysis & Research, London) in 2017, has proved that the materials are fully consistent with a seventeenth century date of creation and the grounds and pigments congruous with those found in Hals paintings between 1625 and 1641 (both reports available on request). The finding of indigo in the top layer of the blue caps is also a significant pointer for Hals as he is known to have made rare use of the pigment in the late 1620s, for instance in the blue sashes of the Civic Guard Company of 1627 (Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum).
The appeal of Hals’s genre paintings to the modern aesthetic has been felt by artists from the nineteenth century onwards. None more so than Van Gogh, who was inspired more by Hals than any of the other Dutch Golden Age artists including Rembrandt. When he visited the Royal Museum in Antwerp, the first picture he recalled in a letter to his brother was Hals’s Fisherboy: ‘I was particularly struck by the Frans Hals Fisherboy’ (Van Gogh letters, 1958, II, letter 436, p. 457). Van Gogh’s admiration for Hals is telling. He regarded him as ‘a colourist among colourists, a colourist like Veronese, like Rubens, like Delacroix, like Velazquez’ and was in awe of his spontaneity and how quickly he seems to have painted: ‘...to paint in one rush, as much as possible in one rush. What a joy to see a Frans Hals, how different it is from those pictures – there are so many of them – where everything has been carefully smoothed down in the same way’. Van Gogh’s Portrait of Camille Roulin (fig. 5), painted in 1888, two years after he left Antwerp, is testament to the impression Hals had made on him.
We are grateful to Professor Claus Grimm for his views, cited above, and to Pieter Biesboer and Norbert Middelkoop for independently confirming the attribution, all after inspection of the original.