B I O G R A P H Y
A detail from “Peeckelhaeringh” (Pickled Herring) by Frans Hals million liters of beer annually, more than any other uropean city except London”. Nadler shows how arrow and insufficient the clichéd view of Dutch life nd art as a paragon of Calvinist puritanism is. Most itizens of the republic were not members of the Dutch Reformed Church, even though the ruling egents were, while the Catholic influence was far reater than one might think – and this while the atholic faith was often barely tolerated in the orthern Netherlands. Hals himself may well have been from a Catholic amily. He was born c.1582 in Antwerp, the town of ubens and van Dyck, where neither artists nor their itters were in the least bit embarrassed by their iches. They revelled in opulence and display. Like many Flemish people, Catholic or Protestant, the Hals amily joined the exodus to the north when Antwerp was occupied and ransacked by Spanish troops. More han 100,000 left Flanders. A third of the population f Haarlem was of Flemish origin at one point. Many migrés, including Hals’s father, Franchois, were in he textile business, but quite a few were artists, such s Karel van Mander, who may have been Hals’s eacher.
Biographical facts about Hals are often hazy, so much of Nadler’s book is about the times in which e lived and the circles in which he moved. But we now for sure that he visited Antwerp as an adult and was interested in the art he saw there. Jacob Jordaens was an inspiration, as was van Dyck, who visited Haarlem (but not Hals’s studio, it seems) in return.
he aesthetic borders between the popish south and he Protestant north were more porous than one might think. The differences between the northern nd southern styles often had to do with patronage s much as anything else. Flemish painters often grew rich on royal and eligious patrons, even when they moved to ngland, as van Dyck did. He wowed his English ristocratic patrons by injecting a baroque Italianate mostly Venetian) style into a practical Protestant ulture. He gave his sitters a sense of bella figura. his kind of bravura painting had its admirers in Holland as well, especially at the court of the tadtholder Frederik Hendrik, who aspired to monarchical grandeur (his son William married Mary, the daughter of Charles I).
But Hals did not paint aristocrats, which is one eason why he never made enough money to pay off is considerable debts – to bakers, landlords, taverns, tc. His patrons were as interested in status as van Dyck’s lords and ladies, but they were often selfmade men, proud of their worldly success but esolutely unglamorous. And not all of them were ke the unsmiling worthies pictured in the boardooms of charitable institutions.
Hals’s oeuvre, writes Nadler, “may contain more aughs and smiles than that of any other painter in istory”. “The Laughing Cavalier”, whose face is t up by a sardonic smile more than a laugh, is just he most famous example. The artist’s interest in merriment might have owed something to southern oie de vivre, but he was also catering to a particular
ANUARY 6, 2023
Dutch taste. If sombre faces and black clothes showed one aspect of Dutch life in the seventeenth century, the beery laughter in smoke-filled taverns and popular celebrations were also a staple of Dutch genre painting. The Calvinist propriety of the ruling class was tempered by a kind of boorish good cheer, celebrated by many painters, most famously Jan
Ian Buruma teaches at Bard College, New York. His latest book, The Collaborators, will be published in March
Steen, a younger man than Hals, who sometimes appears in his own paintings grinning and mugging in a drunken state. Hals had a reputation for being a drinker who had to be dragged out of taverns when he had had more than enough.
Sometimes these scenes of revelry were accompanied by a moral lesson that all good times must come to an end, as will all lives. Like readers of tabloid newspapers today, people liked to have it both ways: the guilt of prurience relieved by a show of moral rectitude. But the laughs and smiles in Hals’s portraits – and he painted little else, which was another reason for the precarious state of his finances, because other genres were better paid – are not always boorish. Look at the twinkling eyes of Pieter Verdonck, a fellow Flemish émigré, known for his wicked wit. Or the knowing smile of the “Gypsy Girl”, whose painting might have hung in a brothel to get clients in the right mood. Some of the smiling faces, such as that of an immensely rich burgher named Olycan, show the kind of look one often sees in pictures of successful American businessmen or politicians, ingratiating and a little smug.
This is a long way from the blasé insolence of some of van Dyck’s noblemen, or the aloof refinement of Rubens’s portraits of Spanish or Italian grandees. The same is true of Hals’s famous “rough” style. Like paintings by Cézanne several centuries later, his work might seem to be half-finished, even dashed off. As Nadler explains, however, the deliberate lack of polish was the result of a great deal of effort. Hals’s interest was not in a fastidious reproduction of reality, let alone in flattering and glamorous representation. The hands of his sitters did not have to be rendered in meticulous detail. The trick was to invest them with the illusion of life in a few brushstrokes, which were never really rough.
This sense of life, produced by seemingly artless means, shorn of the finicky refinement of more aristocratic art, is what the burghers of Holland appreciated. Their status was based not on family bloodlines, proud landownership or military prowess, but on individual merit and virtue. That Hals’s reputation diminished in the eighteenth century, when French aristocratic taste prevailed, is not surprising. Nor is it remarkable that it rose again in the late nineteenth century, when the impressionists adopted their own version of the rough style. Van Gogh was a huge admirer.
Individualism, then, is what Hals’s portraits celebrated. This is where politics and religion merged. Protestants had to find their own way to God’s blessing, unaided by priests and ornate images displayed in incense-filled churches. Just so, the citizens of a republic had to make their own way in the world through their own initiatives and enterprise. That people very much like some of the sitters in Hals’s portraits founded America and invested the new world with their cultural attitudes makes perfect sense.
Yet even arch individualists, in seventeenthcentury Holland or, indeed, in the US today, cannot exist alone. They attach themselves to religious organizations with a peculiar and sometimes puritanical fervour. The rich derive status from their ostentatious charities. And collective life takes place in civic groups, or what Americans like to call “communities”, as in “gay community” or “Latino community”.
These tendencies, too, are clearly visible in Hals’s group portraits, in the pictures of the civic guards as much as in pictures such as “Regents of the Old Men’s Alms House”. These civic guards look more boisterous than the regents and regentesses who watch over the deserving poor. But what makes these paintings so interesting, apart from the artist’s extraordinary painterly virtuosity, is that every person in them is a complete individual. Their facial expressions, the way they hold their hands and twist their bodies, show something of the character of each sitter.
No doubt, as Peter Schjeldahl said, some of them were oafish, supercilious or run-of-the mill. But then so are most of us, at least some of the time. To be bored by that is to lack a nose for the human stink. n