Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Celebrated Portraitist and Genre Painter Frans Hals

Dutch Art in New York
by Miriam Schulman

Trademark jutting elbow and knuckle on his hips
The Dutch have revered Franz Hals as part of the holy trinity of artists coming from their country that include Rembrandt and Vermeer. The current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art does a great job placing Hals in context of art history. The curators relate the painter to the past and also to the future of Dutch and modern painting. Nineteen paintings make up this exhibit which also includes other Flemish masters such as Rubens, Jan Steen and Van Dyke. The exhibition ends with painters of the impressionist future such as Robert Henri who site Hals as an important influence on their work. In Henri's seminal book, The Art Spirit, he writes of Hals "what cool generalship and positive, immediate decision were necessary to place those solid forms in action and to render so much completion with simple strokes."

Strong and modern diagonal composition
After leaving the exhibit you exit upon the nineteenth century paintings and the message the Met gives you is made clearer by revisiting the portraits of John Singer Sargent and Manet. Sargent encouraged other portrait painters to "Begin with Franz Hals, copy and study Franz Hals, after that go to Madrid and copy Velazquez."

His portraits of men were hailed during his day for his lifelike qualities. The psychological impact of these important men look a if they had just entered the picture plane as in a bewitched Harry Potter portrait and were only going to give the viewer a few minutes of their time. The portrait sitter invariably looks disdainfully down on the view with his knuckle on his hip in an impudent gesture. The elbow juts out into the picture space with the body in a three quarter profile and the head turned slightly toward the viewer. The flesh is ruddy in a Rubenesque sort of way. Moreover, Hals was a master of the brush with his virtuoso depiction of lace, linen, silk and satin each conveyed with strong brushwork that belies the difficulty in executing these textiles in paint.

The genre paintings differ from Hals more formal portraits. Here we see lots of dirty teeth, an unusual body part for a fine art portrait.Most faces in formal portraiture are depicted with lips closed or only slightly parted. Both types of paintings share the same candid poses not convincing captured again in fine art until the introduction of photography some 300 years later. In his naughty genre paintings, Hals has fun introducing phallic symbols and less subtle signs of debauchery such as prostitution, smoking, and raucous pubs which he depicts in a nonjudgmental manner. 

Although many Dutch sought out portrait paintings, these were not as well paid during his lifetime as the history painting and religious subjects.Genre paintings were also not commissioned works but hung in the artist's studio until sold. The artist struggled in his lifetime financially to feed his eleven children. His paintings fell out of favor during the time of Vermeer but had a revival with the championing of his brushwork by the impressionists and later collectors sought out his work as the "modern master"

Many of the paintings are pulled from the Met's permanent collection but you will miss out on the delightful audio tour which as New York Times critic Roberta Smith writes "provides a remarkably full tutorial on Hals’ achievements."

Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum continues through Oct. 10 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.

Miriam Schulman is a portrait artist in New York. For more information about commissioning a portrait see www.SchulmanArt.com

Dutch art always remind me of tulips. Have you ordered bulbs for fall planting?