Frans Hals: A Golden Age Dutch Master Returns – Nico Kos-Earle

Frans Hals © Artlyst

In March 1849, Théophile Thoré-Bürger founded Le Journal de la vraie République, which Cavaignac (head of the French Second Republic) banned. Forced into exile, this once-political journalist turned his attention to the forgotten Dutch masters of the Golden Age under the pseudonym W. Burger. In addition to his ‘re-discovery’ of Johannes Vermeer, he became interested in the little known, but prodigiously talented Frans Hals, who lived and worked in Haarlem, the new Dutch Republic of the north, where his parents fled during the Fall of Antwerp (1584 – 1585). Spotlighting the modern relevance of his daring brushwork and the democratic nature of his subject matter (that in its totality gives us one of the most excellent snapshots of a historical society), Thoré-Bürger’s revision sparked a riotous interest in Hals’ work that would have a lasting, art-historical significance. 

One of the first art connoisseurs to visit the Gemeentemuseum in Haarlem – the forerunner of the present Frans Hals Museum ( – he wrote extensively for publications, including the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Here was an artist who captured the likeness of ordinary people in quick, impressionistic strokes – unlike anything that had been seen before. The nature of these works intrigued this critic from the modern era, so transformed by the Industrial Revolution and the advent of photography. Today, his gestural brushwork is seen as the forerunner of Impressionism, influencing countless artists – Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Whistler, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and John Singer Sargent – who travelled to Haarlem to see the works. 

Hals’ paintings have an incisive immediacy – of something captured in the moment. To achieve this, one not only needs virtuosity of talent – for the hand to capture what the eye has seen – but also a healthy amount of Dutch courage. The young artist entered a very established scene and the well-known genre of Portraiture, which is primarily considered mimetic. Matriculating in the painter’s guild of Haarlem between 1601 and 1603, Hals was apprenticed to Karel van Mander. It is thought that he met Rubens in 1924, yet his style was distinctly convergent – Rubens’ work is studied and fluid. Hals had to establish a signature style that would allow him the freedom to paint beyond a patron’s expectations and leave a lasting impression. How he did this forms the subtext to a fascinating exhibition cycle organised by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, in partnership with the National Gallery, London, the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museum zu Berlin (, and a unique collaboration with the Frans Hals Museum.

The exhibition at the Rijksmuseum opens with the bucolic cheer of the Merry Drinker (1629), sited alone in the ‘Raw’ section. We see the flushed cheeks of a militia man holding a Berkemeyer, light catching on the half-empty glass. Hals is perhaps best known for his portraits of the citizens of Haarlem – not all named – which he captured in various states of animation; unusually for his era, he focused his attention on happiness. Unlike Rembrandt’s portraits of brooding, psychological insight, we find the flushed face of jollity Laughing Boy with a Flute (1630), the heart-melting smile of Laughing Boy (1630), and the sideways cackle of Malle Babbe (1640). These works describe a particular form of Halsian joy, capturing and transcending the moment. Fresh and spontaneous, even now, in 2024, we can relate to them.

However, before we are treated to these works, we must pass through the section ‘Breathe’ where several iconic husband and wife portraits are reunited. Painted as diptychs, man on the left and woman on the right, with this show opening on St Valentine’s Day, their historic rehanging – side by side – somehow expressed the love everyone involved in creating this show has for the artist. However, instead of seeing lovers glancing across the canvas at each other, we see a sequence of equals, mostly staring out at us, in anticipation of the modern world and the hope of gender parity – a theme the museum is keen on, even in its appointment of it Junior Curator of 17th-century Dutch Painting curator Tamar van Riessen, to emphasise.  

The first pair we see is the Portrait of Cunera van Baersdorp (1625) and the Portrait of Michiel de Wael (1625). Unusually, both sitters adopted the portrait pose (left arm-akimbo on the hip), which was almost exclusively a male preserve. This glorious exception of a woman adopting the pose highlights one of the many ways Hals ignored convention. “The boldness of Cunera van Baersdorp’s portrait is mirrored in that of her husband. It was customary in pendant portraits of married couples not only to have the man on the left and the woman on the right but also to have them turning to one another… one is inclined to ‘read’ the pendants from right to left… Despite their unconformity, there is a wonderful unity and continuity between the two pictures,” says Bart Cornelius in his instructive essay Portraiture into Art for the Exhibition Catalogue.

One can imagine that these portraits would have been quite lucrative, and perhaps another painter might have stuck at that, but Hals was interested in the whole theatre of life. He turned his attention to the characters who, collectively, represented the fabric of his beloved Haarlem. In this, he deliberately and courageously developed a style unique to Dutch 17th-century painting; using rapid brushwork, he achieved an unprecedented sense of dynamism in his portraits. Further, he is one of the few Western artists to paint people smiling and laughing successfully.  


For example, Malle Babble (1640) must have been a familiar street figure, and Pekelharing (1625) was likely a touring actor. He painted many of these after his major commissions – perhaps simply because he could. In Young Man Holding a Skull (1627), a hand comes from the painting towards you, created in just a few brushstrokes. The foreshortening of the hand is so assured we feel it moving towards us. The Boy’s eyes glance sideways; like us, he is focused on the soft peach plume that hangs from his cap, rendered in delicate brushwork. In highlighting this detail, Hals seems to be sharing his delight in the magic of producing what he sees through paint flowing from his brush. Through this combination of the loose and the highly worked, Hals foregrounds the crucial details that read like clues into the sitter’s character. 

Hals worked alla prima – painting directly onto the canvas without preliminary sketches. One needs to be a very accomplished painter to use this technique. Perhaps outlining a little with brown under-painting, he worked immediately with what he wanted to convey, painting wet in wet, without waiting for the oil to dry before applying the next layer. “Hals let the paint flow, with each brush stroke blending into the next,” said curator Friso Lammertse, “he was drawing with paint. No drawings have survived; we do not even know if he made them.” Perhaps this is why the portraits convey such a deep connection – as if their relationship was developed through the painting process, and respect was discovered in the act. To see and be seen is such a profoundly human need. 

The Laughing Cavalier (1624) is also featured in this exhibition, travelling for the first time since 1870 from the Wallace Collection, London. Over and over again, we find freedom and nonchalance in these portraits. Whilst the palette is often sombre, almost monochrome, they are filled with laughter and light. Less staged than traditional era portraits, they seem more familiar with street photography and photojournalism. Nothing like the stillness and photorealism of Vermeer, more like images captured in spontaneous, effervescent encounters. What we see in this exhibition is not a catalogue of nobility and wealth but a portrait of society and a celebration of the little moments of happiness that make a life worth living. 

Interestingly, one of his students, Judith Leyster, is one of the few professional women painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Half-length representations of happy musicians and drinkers set against a neutral background also deploy the contrast of light and shade to heighten dramatic effects. Yet, they do not emulate Hals’s signature brushwork. You can see an example of her work at Frans Hals Museum, which also uses the unique loan of two civic guard pieces to the Rijksmuseum to include portraits of four leading Dutch female artists. Thérèse Schwartze (1851-1918) and Charley Toorop (1891-1955) were inspired by Frans Hals and his contemporaries. Contemporary artists Patricia Kaersenhout (1966) and Iriée Zamblé (1995) pay tribute to figures who, until recently, were little represented in museums. The new group portrait Wishing on a Star (2024) by Zamblé (winner of the Royal Prize for Modern Painting 2022) was commissioned by the Frans Hals Museum, especially for this presentation, a positive-negative of Black figures floating in white space. 

Although the Rijksmuseum show is not chronological, it ends with the last two Regents Paintings that Hals ever made –  Regents of the Old Men’s Alms House on the left & Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House on the right, in keeping with the portraits in the first section. Thoré-Bürger regarded these works, from around 1664, as the pinnacle of his artistic achievement. “I do not know of paintings executed with so much elan…modelled in broad, flamboyant strokes…” 

On this, I could not disagree more. Approaching the paintings from afar, one feels like moving towards a void. Acres of black space surround the darkened figures, stern faces illuminated only by their stark white collars, like swans on a night lake. The contrast is so extreme that it seems to prefigure minimalism but also has another effect. It appears the artist has left an invitation for someone in the future to step in and take these compositions forward. A line from the BAFTA-winning Oppenheimer, spoken by Killian Murphy, comes to mind: “It’s mostly space. Groupings of tiny energy … Forces of attraction strong enough to convince us that matter is solid. Stop my body passing through yours.” (

I think of how thrilling this must have felt to Manet or Sergeant – seeing the opportunity to paint forward and grasp what Hals had truly liberated: the artist himself. He was free to develop his unique style, regardless of what was expected of them. I can almost hear him laughing at this master’s final stroke. 

For three perfect days out, book your tickets to these shows right now:

Words/Photos Nico Kos-Earle © Artlyst 2024

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