Frans Hals

Eye to Eye with Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian

I knew Hals as the artist who portrays engaging, everyday people laughing and making merry. Then I read an article in a Dutch newspaper about this exhibition which asserted that Hals has possibly played second fiddle to Rembrandt too much: Although Rembrandt might have acquired more worldwide fame, Hals was definitely more masterful in his use of the brush and more innovative in his approach. So I spent a sunny Sunday afternoon in Haarlem examining the evidence for myself.

First impression? It was immediately clear that Hals was a trendsetter. His rapidly applied brush strokes in the style of Tintoretto were not used to convey religious or mythological scenes like those of his mentor Karel van Mander, but to bring everyday people to life. And he was darned good at it.

For example, the exhibition has three paintings side by side of a man in black standing next to a chair. They are a Rubens, a Van Dyck and a Hals. Rubens’ painting has a detailed life-likeness, more so than Van Dyck, but only Hals really brings the figure to life. And as I wandered through the exhibition I realised why. It is how he portrays the light in his subjects’ eyes. Somehow the eyes make contact with your eyes and draw you into the life story of the person depicted. I found that was a better
clue to identifying a work of Hals correctly than his trademark smile, because some of his contemporaries in Haarlem, such as Judith Leyster, were pretty good at that as well.

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