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Strokes of Genius

The Baroque Dutch painter Frans Hals is considered one of the most innovative artists of his time. His paintings of citizens of Haarlem, where he spent most of his life, were unlike anything else in-period: natural, spontaneous, full of movement and vitality; effects achieved thanks to his incisiveness as an artist and his unique technique of using broad, loose brushstrokes, and the application of the pigment directly onto the canvas.

Born in Antwerp around 1582, Hals’s career developed mostly in Haarlem, at the time of the Dutch Golden Age, where artists thrived in a society driven by trade, science and the arts. He achieved the status of virtuoso, which catapulted him to the level of Rembrandt and Velázquez. Unfortunately, by the 18th century, his fame had faded away. It wasn’t until the 19th century that French art critic and journalist, Théophile Thoré-Bürge rediscovered his work, as well as that of Vermeer.

Left: Malle Babbe, c. 1640. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie. Right: The Lute Player, c. 1623. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Both by Frans Hals.

The 50 works exhibited at the Rijksmuseum highlight the artist’s keen observation and revolutionary approach to capturing the essence of human character. Hals departed from the formal and stoic poses common in the era, opting instead for a more naturalistic and animated style. The show even digs into the identities and social milieus of the people Hals painted, bringing them further into life. Malle Babbe, c.1633-35, for example, is believed to have been a familiar figure on the streets of Hals’ home city of Haarlem, while the man portrayed in Peeckelhaering, 1629, was probably an English actor touring the Netherlands.

The freedom of his style manifested in loose and expressive brushstrokes, combined with a keen understanding of colour, light and shadow. This is probably why Hals is often described as the forerunner of Impressionism. His style influenced Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, James McNeil Whistler, Claude Monet, Max Liebermann, Vincent van Gogh, John Singer Sargent and others. Almost all of them visited Haarlem to admire his portraits of individuals and civil militia groups, four of which can be admired at this exhibition. They include Hals’s earliest militia painting, Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard, 1616, which has left the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem for the first time.

Probably his most famous painting, Frans Hals’ portrait of this young man is the best example of his ability to convey the mood and expression of his sitters.   

Another gem in the show is The Laughing Cavalier, 1624, probably Hals’s most famous painting. This captivating portrayal of a gentleman who seems to be holding back a burst of laughter, encapsulates the artist’s flair for conveying emotion. The black sash demonstrates his extraordinary ability to paint using a limited colour palette, which led Vincent van Gogh to exclaim, “Frans Hals must have had 27 blacks!”

The Rijksmuseum’s Frans Hals exhibition invites visitors to explore the enduring legacy of this innovative artist and how his approach paved the way for future generations of artists, including impressionists and post-impressionists. Most importantly, the dynamic and engaging portraits of Hals continue to resonate with audiences, offering a timeless celebration of the human spirit.

Frans Hals: Strokes of Genius

Rijksmuseum. Museumstraat 1, Amsterdam 1071 XX

16th February – 9th June 2024


Words: Lavinia Dickson-Robinson
Opening image: Frans Hals, Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard, 1616. Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem.

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