Painting: Uncle Behind the Laughter

Only in retrospect was the 17th century in Holland seen as the age of Rembrandt. At the time, it was the glittering solidity of a moneyed middle class, the robust freedom of a people unburdened by spendthrift — and the plain cockiness of the most successful seafaring nation in Europe that struck the eye. These are characteristics that Frans Hals pictured with precision.

Rembrandt, after a successful early career, turned his back on his age; Hals was its constant mirror.

Unlike Rembrandt, who often made his patrons subservient to his art, Hals rarely...

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