The brewer is powerful: a man of inordinate prowess who looks down on you with all his shrewd vigor, a satin doublet trying to contain his enormous girth. The hat is so large that it has its own planetary halo; the lace collar could cover a table. It is not difficult to imagine the terrible strength of his grip.
He was the owner of the Swan’s Neck brewery, that gentleman from Haarlem. But he was also a lavish collector of Dutch portraits, and none can have surpassed this one. From affable but not fooled eyes to blushing jowls, elbow-length hair protruding from the frame in a crumpled sheen of satin, everything is painted with appropriate and equivalent force. The portrait rises to meet the man at every turn.
It is one of two masterpieces coming from the Metropolitan Museum in New York for this magnificent Hals exhibition, the first in Great Britain since 1990. It is a vision of astonishing originality. Frans Hals (c1582-1666) seems an unprecedented painter in Dutch art. His portraits are so sudden and instantaneous, so fluid and democratic – from the bar boy to the civic guard, from the drinker and the clothier to the diplomat; especially so daring in their freedom of movement, in the undisguised adventure of each brand.
He lived all his life in Haarlem, with only one expedition to Antwerp in 1616, where he may have seen the pictorial daring of Rubens and the late Titian. For many years he was as successful as a portrait painter as Warhol in Manhattan, followed by such a steep decline that he could not afford to burn peat to warm himself in his 80s. Yet a portrait here from that same era, of a strangely sleazy man leaning back in a pointed hat, is so young in his virtuoso features, so cowardly and deconstructed, it seems to foreshadow the modernist. Card players by Cézanne.
Kenneth Clark scorned Hals, notoriously, as “revoltingly mirthful and horribly skillful.” But Manet and Van Gogh revered him for these deep resemblances, all made “in one fell swoop.” Piercing-eyed spies, patrician peacocks, textile mogul Tieleman Roosterman in black rosettes and white wheel collars, one hand bare, the other in a luxurious gold-corded glove (I am what I make) – their depth is too evident that their style to the Wallace collection.
Where contemporaries preferred stillness, gravity, or impeccable workmanship, Hals always burst out, communicating the vitality of his models with the darting touches and irregular spots so admired by the Impressionists. But even more surprising is her gift for the double response, for the sustained connection between the model and the viewer which makes them seem just as fascinated to see you.
The pinnacle here is the Wallace Collection’s own Hals, The Laughing Horseman (1624). Of course, he doesn’t laugh as long as he turns his smile on us in a pose so intricate and subtle that it’s hard to know exactly where he was sitting in relation to the painter. In any case, it is the eyes that turn the most, with their captivating and oblique undertones. To see this relatively early masterpiece in the context of Hals’ long career is to realize how quickly his originality has emerged. The French embroidery on the sleeve is an astonishing salad of lines, twisting and glittering against the coppery cuffs, the lace like sparkling ice cream. Maybe there are fragments in those eyes.
But it’s a pose, more than a meeting. And what you feel about this brilliant orchestration – where all the portraits are displayed together in a single colossal gallery, but each man is set separately against a glowing oblong of painted wall, something like a Rothko – is the changing relationship between the models. and Hals.
Take the portrait of Isaac Massa, on loan from Toronto. Massa turns in her chair, glancing to our left, one eye in broad daylight, the other in a mysterious shadow. Her mouth is ajar, somewhere between speaking and breathing. Her right elbow hangs over the back of the chair, a holly stalk hangs from her fingers like a regular cigarette. Behind him is a view of evergreens, sometimes considered that of a second artist (but why, since Hals is so endlessly varied?).
Massa spoke several languages and had been Dutch Ambassador to Russia. Hals painted it several times, and there is always that air of friendship. The artist visits the babysitter’s house (Hals rarely did) for the conversational exchange. It is a portrait of deep intelligence in all respects.
Turn around and here is the Dutch admiral who was one of the first Europeans to taste coffee, with his cheerful smile and unruly hair. He tells Hals the stories of his traveler. He taps his staff on the floor to accentuate, his eyes narrowing with laughter, strands of hair wobbling around his head like urgent black writing. It’s this very minute now.
Hals’ brushstroke is surprising. There are floating episodes of such intense energy that they seem almost independent of the subject – but never quite. A sleeve that looks like a splashed Jackson Pollock; a hand disappearing in the smoke; those fierce vectors and crisscrossing diagonals that resemble the fractal geometry of a snowflake. He draws with paint (which Manet loved) and graduates with infinitesimal tones (27 different blacks, according to Van Gogh). It is painting as a performance art, depicting its own action in a nonstop present time even as it records the infallible appearance of each man on that day.
These portraits may seem quick to shoot, but their slow design is evident in the painstaking layers of underpaint often seen at the edge of the canvas. Hals’ calligraphy is also not quickly read. Try to count these 27 blacks and your eye will pick up more and more of the human subtext. The most mysterious portrait here, in the Metropolitan Museum, is all in nuanced contradiction. It shows a man beautifully dressed in black, with lilac, pale green and pink ribbons at the waist, but no delicacy on his face.
The workmanship – of the lace, the hair, the thumb holding the wide-brimmed hat – is spectacularly refined, almost abstract. Yet the man holds the threat. Whatever he has seen – and he is surely a spy or an executioner – is some kind of brutal knowledge. The face is dark and the amount of light in the eyes is so small that they appear both gaudy and yet oblivious to anyone – a dead end look. Look too closely for this light and you will not see anything: which can be a lesson. Too much attention to Hals’ style distracts from the depth of his art; the two are never separate.