Art: Homage to Hals

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Until they opened a museum in the summer of 1862, the burghers of Haarlem in The Netherlands never fully realized the extent of their riches. There had been paintings in various public buildings all over town, but now they were assembled under one roof, and the effect was dazzling. The museum was appropriately named for the great 17th century master Frans Hals, for it was his work that towered over everything else.

Last week, in celebration of its centennial, the museum had on view the largest exhibition of Hals paintings ever held. Eleven of the canvases belonged to Haarlem; the rest came from as far away as the State Museum of Odessa and the University of Illinois in Urbana. Queen Elizabeth of England and Mrs. Efrem Zimbalist of Philadelphia each sent a painting; the Earl of Radnor and the King of Sweden sent two apiece.

Stodgy But Vital. Frans Hals, one of the finest of portrait painters, recorded an era of Dutchmen who, aside from a few laughing fisherboys, gypsies and assorted tipplers, must have been a pretty stodgy lot. Yet Hals gave them a vitality that still jumps from the canvas. Hals never worked from sketches; he drew simply and directly with his brush, building his invariably harmonious compositions almost by instinct. He wasted no time on frills or dramatics; his presentation was straightforward, sometimes even stark. Yet his brush was so light and fluid that even when his subjects appear in a void, with nothing stirring about them, they themselves seem about to move or speak.

Hals usually preferred to let his subjects stand or sit on an empty stage with only their personalities—a tightness of the lip, a squint of the eyes, a proud thrust of the head—constituting the action. His Married Couple (see color) was one of the exceptions. The two young people seem to have flung themselves into their coy positions only a moment ago, and they look as if they might just as hurriedly get up to go on about their business. The manicured landscape in the background is strangely sentimental for a realist like Hals; critics believe that he was using some fashionable symbology. A garden was the traditional home of Venus; the peacocks may refer to Juno, the protectress of marriage, and the ivy behind the young woman could be the symbol of fidelity.

Alone But Linked. Though few men could catch so well the character of an individual, Hals was also the master of the group portrait. With him, all the contrived clumsiness of his predecessors vanished. His Banquet of Officers of the St. Joris-Doelen is so composed that while each man retains his individuality, he is linked by gesture and expression to the whole. The seated figure in the foreground provides a dash of humor: he holds his glass upside down to show he is out of wine. In 1621 a city ordinance ruled that these banquets should not last more than three or four days. Previously, they tended to go on for a week.

The solid citizens that Hals painted were a prosperous lot, but Hals himself, the father of perhaps a dozen children, was often near starvation. Most of the documents still in existence concerning his personal life are court records of suits filed by creditors. Hals was so poor that the city had to provide him with three cartloads of turf each year for fuel, and it also paid for his grave. He was buried in 1666 at a cost of four florins ($1.50). His paintings on exhibition in Haarlem last week were insured for $25 million.