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The Charm and Spirit of Frans Hals

Frans Hals is one of Holland’s best loved portrait artists. Born in Antwerp in the late 16th century, Hals remained there all of his life, his art serving as an enduring testimony to Dutch society that encompassed the socially elite to the common.

Hals’ “painterly” style, created with loose brushwork, gives the impression of quick and confident execution. Although experts have determined that Hals did not employ the stringent and time-consuming methods used by artists of the time such as extensive planning, underpainting and elaborate finishing, his paintings apparently did require more time than one would expect. Perhaps it is this impression of casualness that proves Hals’ skill.

Ironically, the portraits for which Hals is best known only represent a minor portion of his work. Like most artists of the times, Hals depended upon portrait commissions from the wealthy to make ends meet. But it is the portraits of the lower echelons of Dutch society that are most endearing to many. Hals’ portrayals of the common folk exude a vitality that brings them to life. In his portraits of gypsies, tavern-goers and musicians, Hals manages to show us the more human side of society through his paintings with spirit and charm.

Little is known about the life of Frans Hals. The earliest indication of Hals’ career as an artist is his registration in an art guild in Antwerp. Shortly thereafter he married his first wife who bore two children before her early death. Hals then took a second wife who survived him and with whom he had eight children. Hals was very successful in his artistic career but early on fell into debt. No doubt he had a large family to support but it appears that he spent money unwisely and it has been suggested that Hals’ lifestyle may have resembled those of the bon vivants he sometimes painted. This may have been true to some extent but Hals obviously could not have continued to receive commissions from the wealthier members of Dutch society had he been disreputable. Nevertheless, by middle age Hals had fallen into insurmountable debt and he declared bankruptcy. Even though he continued to receive lucrative portrait commissions, his financial difficulties continued into his later life at which time he was reduced to accepting support from the state. What is now the Frans Hals Museum in Antwerp was once the Old Men’s Almshouse where Hals spent the last years of his life in destitution.

Although Hals is known for his endearing portraits of common people, the nature of his work changed as he entered middle age, becoming far less jovial and more tinged with sadness. His compositions became more simplistic and his palette less vivid. It is perhaps during his later years that Hals best reveals his ability to express the serious side of human nature. Like many artists whose work is unique in his own time, he did not have a large group of followers to whom to pass on his legacy. And although five of his eight sons became artists, none became particularly successful. It was not until the 19th century that interest in Hals’ work began to escalate. Today, he is given credit as an inspiration to subsequent artists who adopted a similar painterly style such as John Singer Sargent and Édouard Manet.

To see an online gallery of the works of Frans Hals, please click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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