Oil on canvas: 88 x 65 cm
to be dated 1644/45
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This important portrait was painted by the most famous portrait painter of the Golden Age and one of the greatest names in art history. Indeed, it has an intriguing history.
To begin with, it is the most newly discovered painting by the great Haarlem master. The Hotinov’s, from Muiderberg, presented the painting on the 13th May 1964 to the director of the museum in Haarlem, which is, in fact, named after the world-famous painter himself, the Frans Hals Museum.
The painting was in a deplorable state. The Hotinov’s bought the portrait outside of auction the previous year in the sales room of J.C. Derksen in Arnhem for Dfl. 40,25. They had the painting restored by a coarse and rogue restorer, who after cleaning concluded that he was dealing with a Frans Hals. He then decided to paint over the canvas in such a way that it was no longer visible that it was an original, with the apparent intention of purchasing the portrait from the Hotinov’s, in the hope that the painting would then, after removal of the overpaints, be able to resell at a large profit. The Hotinov’s, however, had been warned in the meantime and did not accept the proposal. They then entrusted the painting to the care of an honest, but nonetheless rather incompetent restorer, to remove the overpainting.
It was in this state that the then director of the Frans Hals Museum, Dr. H.P. Baard, looked at the piece in 1964. Baard noted that its frame dated from the 1860s, and he thought the repainting had probably been done at the same time or around 1870, perhaps to give it a more finished appearance, in accordance with the taste of the time. He exhibited the painting in the Museum so that experts could form an opinion and almost all of them concluded that it was a real Frans Hals. The discovery of such a monumental painting was received with an almost ecstatic disbelief. The moments of such incredible discoveries are rare! And soon an X-ray examination showed that the material was old and after professional restoration in the studio of the Frans Hals Museum, there was no doubt whatsoever about Hals ‘authenticity.
In the meantime, a German buyer presented herself. She stipulated two conditions, however, (1) that the painting be cleaned by the restorer of the Frans Hals Museum itself, and (2) that the most prominent Frans Hals expert, Prof. Seymour Slive, give his verdict.
Both conditions were met. The cleaning/restoration provided full confirmation of the experts: that the painting was indeed a real Frans Hals. Removal of the discouraging layer of paint revived the portrayed person and allowed Hals’s authentic style of painting to come into its own again.
The contours were redefined against the background that had become transparent, and the added head of hair disappeared completely, restoring the balance of the head. The previously stiff and chalky collar also regained its transparency, and the shape of the right shoulder became visible again. Moreover, the general recognition of the authorship was finally shared by Professor Seymour Slive of Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. USA, whose voice as an authority on Frans Hals carries great weight. As Seymour Slive noted, “the removal of the repaint has not damaged the painted surface”.
Unfortunately, the identity of the man portrayed is still unknown and hitherto no pendant has been identified, but it has from time to time been suggested that this could be a self-portrait by Hals, on the basis of similarities with the copy of a lost self-portrait of circa 1650 in Indianapolis. The attribute that the man is holding in his left hand may play a role in establishing his identity. It is believed to be a bunch of hops, which could mean that his identity lies among the Haarlem beer brewers. Others, however, see a bundle of tail feathers of a rooster or black cock. Could it be connected to a quill? This could in turn point to a poet, composer, an historian or a writer. What about Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), the secretary to two Princes of Orange. Around 1645 he would have been at the prime of his career. It is also possible that it is a bundle of linen, which could mean that the sitter was a manufacturer or trader of linen. Or is it an impressionistically stylized glove?
This is a mature work by Frans Hals, painted circa 1644-5, a dating with which both Seymour Slive and Claus Grimm concur. Slive compares the treatment of the head and collar and the overall tonality with Hals’ undated Portrait of a Man in Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, which he in turn relates to works dated 1643 and 1644, and dates it between 1643 and 1645.
The hand of the sitter is painted in typical Frans Hals style. Sometimes Frans Hals’ hands barely look like hands up-close. From a distance, however, it appears that few artists have painted such expressive and lifelike hands as his. One can see the blood flowing through the veins, if you will. In this context, for example, look at the black shadow of the index finger which, contrasted with the light spots on the other side of the finger, the side from which the light comes, results in a beautiful spatial effect.
The face also shows that Frans Hals is at the height of his talents and skill. The individual character of the person portrayed is expressed in a phenomenal way. As is so often the case in his portraits, Hals ‘mercilessly’ illustrates the essence and unique character of his client: in this case, for example, we see the realistic and honest expression of a distinguished Haarlem citizen.
Hals achieves this through the rather traditional position of his model, and the tried and tested portrait conventions (that he used more often during this time), breathing new life and pictorial effect, which he accomplishes with a limited palette and unparalleled technique.
In ‘Oud Holland’ nr. 4 from 1965, the former director of the Frans Hals Museum Mr. H.P. Baard wrote:
“even if at the moment we must sustain our hopes that through some lucky find in old records the identity of the person portrayed by Hals may be released from his anonymity, the main thing is that there can now be complete satisfaction about a surprising discovery through which Hals‘ oeuvre has been enriched by a work of great quality”.
Portraiture became perhaps the most popular genre of painting in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. This was no doubt related to the Calvinistic notion that painters should paint the visible world rather than biblical representations. A decisive factor, in addition to the disappearance of the church as principal, was also the increasing prosperity and the larger number of wealthy citizens who valued leaving a tangible memory of their earthly existence for posterity.
Frans Hals was the first artist to prove that a painter who limited himself to a relatively small specialisation – in this case portraiture – could nevertheless acquire a place in the Pantheon of the great Western artists. It would take two centuries, however, to reach that point. Although Frans Hals was a celebrated portrait painter during his lifetime in Haarlem, he painted very few nationally famous personalities apart from Rene Descartes, perhaps. Furthermore, he did not have a large workshop or many pupils under his tutelage although his most notable students were Jan Miense Molenaar and his wife, Judith Leyster.
Hals had a strong reputation as an artist who painted spontaneously, immediately and with great speed: ‘Frans Hals breathed as easily as he painted’, it was said of him. There are hardly any drawings or preliminary studies by him. Up until about 1630, he rarely used his well-known broad and loose brushstrokes. It was only until after this period that he began applying his infamous and characteristic techniques to hands and faces, or for lace work and multi-coloured costumes. In the last phase of his life (from ca. 1640), to which this portrait belongs, Hals also used this painting style for the faces of the more official portraits.
A total of 220 paintings by Hals are known; 65 to 70 from the period 1630-1640 when he was at the height of his popularity. Compared to other great artists such as Bartholomaeus van der HeIst and Rembrandt, this is a relatively small number. Besides the portraits of cheerful figures, of which the gypsy girl in the Louvre, the laughing flute players and ‘Malle Babbe’ are the best known, his Schutters pieces (the first in 1616), Regent portraits of the St. Elizabeth hospital in Haarlem (1641) and especially the group portraits of the regents and regents of the Old Men’s House (which he made at the age of eighty in 1664 (all in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem) are considered to be equally great pinnacles of his oeuvre.
On the other hand, the number of paintings by Frans Hals still known is relatively large in view of the fact that appreciation for the painter waned soon after his death, and even during the last decade of his life. Hals was constantly troubled by money, especially in his last years, and from 1662 onwards he received a modest annual contribution from the Haarlem city council. Only around 1860 did this change, due to the enthusiastic and favourable opinion of several French and German art connoisseurs.
A revaluation of Frans Hals was fuelled by the opening of the Haarlems Gemeentemuseum in 1862: the museum that would later be renamed the ‘Frans Hals Museum’. His most important group portraits, already mentioned above, became visible to a large audience for the first time from that moment on.
Famous artists have visited the Museum and were greatly impressed: Delacroix, Manet, Rousseau, Fantin-Latour, Whistler, and many others, praised Hals’s virtuosity, craftsmanship and expressiveness, and even claimed that he far surpassed such luminaries as Van Dyck and Velazques.
Vincent van Gogh was also a great admirer of Frans Hals: “What struck me most when looking back at the old Dutch paintings is that they often seem to be painted quickly”, he writes to his brother Theo, “That these great masters, like Hals, Rembrandt, Ruysdael … instigated the ‘premier coup’ as much as possible and did not go back to it very much afterwards … and Hals – hands that were alive yet looked unfinished … Suddenly painting as much as possible all at once. What a great pleasure it is to see such a Frans Hals…”
Dr. Margret Klinge, 27 Jan 1992, including provenance