The Dutch in Black and White

John Haber
in New York City

Frans Hals in the Met

There were the Dutch masters, each in his niche—the specialist in landscape or still life, storm clouds or sunlight, forest or sea. There were Rembrandt and Vermeer, somehow apart, crossing genres, feeling and observing, in time failing or refusing to fit in. And then there was Frans Hals. Did his portraits grow darker or lusher in black and white?

As a postscript, I return two weeks later, to see what the Met's display of Frans Hals from its collection has left behind. Plenty, of course, including a small group portrait by his brother Dirck. Hals's Haarlem dominates an entire room. That room holds most of the earliest work, for North Holland was critical to the young nation's independence and success. Ships on the North Sea helped bring both, and Haarlem was a center of the tulip trade, too. One way or other, its art describes peace, prosperity, land, and sea. Frans Hals's Portrait of a Man (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1636–1638)

The big three

Frans Hals has long ranked in the big three of Dutch painting. He has the brushwork, so that careful underpainting lays the ground for spontaneity. He has the eye, so that surface confusion resolves into well-judged shadows and sparkling materials. He treats solo and group portraits alike as a procession of individuals, each with a moment to shine before one moves on to the next. Their black and white all but defines the Dutch masters, although the famous cigar box borrows instead from Rembrandt. He tempts one to moralize, while withholding judgment.

He had his arrogance, such that sitters had to come to him, and he had his proper deference. He was in steady demand, enough that well above two hundred works survive, and he ended in poverty. He died on the dole in 1666, with only essential furniture and a handful of paintings to his name. Even so, the men and women running the alms house could not resist having their portraits done. Hals in turn could not resist showing the women as frighteningly severe—and one man as, probably, flat out drunk. He also gives them personality and dignity.

He tempted a Marxist critic to see only bitterness, where art historians before that had settled for the "human condition," "harmonious fusion," and sanctimony. In Ways of Seeing, a 1972 paperback and BBC series, John Berger describes one's engagement with each face as "nothing less than allowing the painting to act on us." And it truly does act—but such that neither the givers nor the receivers of charity need feel shame. The stillness of surrounding space only enhances their dignity. Hals arranges both men and women in pyramids, based on three planes and a strong receding diagonal from left to right. Besides, for all one knows, that man with a drunken palsy has a neurological condition sympathetically observed.

Like Rembrandt and Jan Vermeer, Hals was a rediscovery of the nineteenth century. The Frick has told that story with a Rembrandt self-portrait. Now the Met tells the story for Hals. Make it a short story. It contains barely a dozen works by the artist, including just two loans, plus copies and influences. The Brooklyn Museum sold off one of the loans, A Fisher Girl, to a private collector some time ago. How charming that the museum's move to irrelevance began before its renovation.

The story includes Edouard Manet, who also fell in love with Diego Velázquez. He found in both a combination of stark color, serious panache, a tolerance for indiscretion, and an equal embrace of wealth and poverty. It includes a new American scene, with James McNeil Whistler and Robert Henri soon after. Yet it is still a short story. It has a sample apiece of Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Jacob Jordaens, because the Flemish influenced Hals, but not very good samples. It has nothing by Manet or by Hals's greatest rival, Judith Leyster. Group portraits appear only in reproduction, blown up to life size on the walls.

It cannot include a room of drawings, because Hals did not work that way. It cannot throw in his workshop, because Hals hardly bothered with one. People still do not know whether Leyster studied with him. It takes over the hall for special exhibitions of European paintings, rather than just rehanging the permanent collection—or using the same small rooms as for Paul Cézanne and his Card Players not so long ago or portraits of Madame Cézanne to come. Call it boasting, but museums everywhere are making do with less in the recession. Still, also call it revealing.

Surprised by sin

Hals's mysteries start with his birth in Antwerp, anywhere from 1580 to 1583. That makes Rembrandt or van Dyck a generation younger, Vermeer nearly half a century. It also lets his career span the great age of Dutch painting. He moved to Haarlem, the city of Jan van Goyen's landscapes, when the Dutch won their independence from Spain. So did his teacher, Karel van Mander, like Bartholemeus Spranger a Flemish Mannerist. Hals held onto work by van Mander until crushing poverty forced him to sell.

Regardless, he is all but invisible well into his thirties, the date of the first reference to him in print, also on display. That is also roughly the date of a return trip to Antwerp, in 1816. He must have admired Rubens again, like the Descent from the Cross in Antwerp cathedral, completed in 1814. He must have seen such Flemish as Adriaen Brouwer, who contributes a smoker with small eyes and a conspiratorial smile. They and Jordaens influenced the ruddy flesh, bright colors, and dissolute ways of his early genre scenes. Perhaps Hals needed the explosion called the Baroque to become an artist at all.

Back in Holland, he could have encountered the new style in other ways as well. He must certainly have seen the so-called Dutch Caravaggisti, and one painting at the Met consciously adopts the pose of an early Caravaggio. Characteristically, he tames the young figure's cramped pose and flagrant sexuality for a less tortured dialogue on sin and pleasure. In fact, he followed much the same path as Leyster. The Met has merely a small painting by her husband, Jan Molenaer, of a prim smile and finely tailored embroidery. Hals could hardly have cared for either one.

Smoking was then a sin, as was drinking, and people flaunted their bad habits. As late as 1670, Jan Steen derides his Merry Company, even or perhaps especially with Steen as model for the tavern keeper. It is not just that Hals refuses to preach. He also refuses to condescend. The spy behind a curtain seems hardly a judge of a smoker—or of the woman who wraps both arms around him in admiration as much as lust. The smoker's brown fluffed-out top gains from its dazzling highlights, in unsettled streaks of white.

The real action is right in front of the picture plane, like a crisply painted boy with a lute. He grins while turning his glass in a proverbial request for more. A trio behind four Shrovetide Revelers, each with his own wayward personality, helps push them forward, too. It brings forward their flushed cheeks, a colorful red dress, a deflated bagpipe, and a basket of eels. Hals can have fun with moralizing, more akin to today's youth culture than a stern Protestantism. Naturally in copies the trio in the rear is painted out, as sloppy perspective.

The crowding looks forward to the group portraits that Hals later pioneered. It combines a flowing composition with multiple focal points, and one wants to remember each one. Merry Company also has a woman at its center, as the only sane part of an almost uniformly male world. It remains a male world, too—despite at least one unforgettably independent young woman. If there is tension in that late alms house, it is in a man's dependency on women. When he paints a madwoman with a beer stein, his own son lay in a madhouse.

A studied silence

Hals carries the same high spirits into portraiture, if only briefly, not to mention a touch of sexism. A young man (known as Yonker Ramp, based on an old mistake) comes with a doting sweetheart, a dog in one hand, and a drink clenched in the other. A diagonal connects them and his energetic reach upward. An older man shows off his cocked hat and pot belly. As the commissions roll in, though, the display calms down. More and more, character is a matter not of gesture or color, but of insight and paint.

The young man, from around 1623, already wears soft grays. The shift from to black and white with varied gray highlights continues, as with a bearded man with a ruff collar or a man draping his glove over the trompe l'oeil oval frame. The descent into black and white has to do with the new image of a Dutch burgher, but also with the cost of paint. Again, though, nothing quite confesses to financial failure or rebellion. Hals keeps up the pace no matter what, thanks to his quick brush and readiness to fall back on a pose—the raised or lowered head just meeting one's gaze, the elbow thrust over the back of chair. They fall just short of a formula, while instead deepening the signs of life.

Left and right eyes may each have a distinct focus. The shadow to one side of a nose adds animation and distinction as much as unity. The finest portrait, from around 1650, has no more time for small talk but also no time for recrimination or despair. A man's loose hair and the white fabric under his elbow contrast with the broad hat over his waist and his obvious intelligence. It is a portrait of at once bravura and restraint. Colored ribbons descend from his belt, each with its own colored shadow, as if Hals were wiping the brush clean.

One can see the care in contrast to copies, like a portrait of Hals with smears for his beard and lower lip. Imitations of his brushwork flatten it and eradicate the sketchy but shadowed background. One can see the contrast, too, in others like Cornelis van Haarlem. Also in Haarlem, Johannes Verspronck paints a woman with ever so precise jewelry, a preposterous lace collar, and a chilling smile. I imagine her as upper management today. Hals's own brother Dirck subdues a group portrait into a horizontal row—interactions obvious and distinct, faces all but interchangeable.

As for Robert Henri, his girl of the street acquires a black background and ambiguous sexuality. It was 1907 in New York, when modernity meant sociology, theater, and artistic freedom. Henri extends Hals's white flecks into her entire blouse on its way to dissolving before one's eyes. Hals himself tends to a disconnect between portraits and flat backgrounds, suggestive of less than continuous space. In a late portrait, a follower adds a column and repaints a windowed landscape to fix it up. Yet Hals also moved away from youth or bravura.

Was it age, disappointment, or the same changing tastes that hurt sales for Rembrandt, when indeed Haarlem itself was becoming marginalized? I see little of the darkness and grim confrontation that John Berger suggests, stunning as he is in demanding more—and sitters could have rejected their portraits had they seen it. I see little of the formal detachment and inner world of Vermeer, but instead a studied silence that lets portraits and brushwork live. One painting lets officers of the Civic Guard strut their stuff. Is Hals caught up in patriotism, taking the military as it is, or just working on commission? Maybe all of the above, and he joined a cotillion, too.

A postscript: Haarlem without Hals

The Dutch loved a skating rink, and well they should. They had created it from their most prized possession, their native land. Rembrandt's Self-Portrait (Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1660)It gave them a place to go, a place to play, and place to be seen, along with a sense of nature and of community. Its scenes are among the most colorful paintings of the age, but also curiously anonymous in their composition—and skaters provide both the color and the anonymity. The paintings are also small in scale, for sale to ordinary people who could cherish the memory, like a trip to Rockefeller Center today. So what if the Little Ice Age must have meant long, cold nights and steep heating bills?

Pieter de Hooch, who had studied in Haarlem, paints a soldier or dandy quarreling over a tavern bill—and who is to say who is cheating whom? The encounter adds its own mix of sexual tension and pleasure. So do the warmly lit drinkers in a room behind, across from the intense afternoon light outside and to the left. Naturalism gets along just fine with storytelling, as in landscapes and seascapes by Jan van Goyen and Jacob van Ruisdael. If these Haarlem painters adjust the horizon a bit or the scale of distant trees, they are literally taking the long view, where objectivity is itself a boast. For Ruisdael, the Netherlands unfolds as a series of subplots, with paths every which way through forest and clearing.

That slow unfolding adds emotional depth, but also deep space, a space that extends well beyond Haarlem. de Hooch takes its measure in pools of light in successive empty rooms behind another cozy interior. Like Vermeer also in Delft, he hints at more of it outside and unseen—even as a mirror half covers a window, reflecting a woman within. Naturally Rembrandt shows the way when it comes to space and feeling, as Bathsheba's soft flesh, the gold threads of the oriental rug at her feet, and the royal purple of her servant's dress shine amid the shadows hiding King David's castle and desires. Darkness always lurks behind portraits, too, where its precision helps distinguish Rembrandt in Leiden and Amsterdam from his students and copyists. Someone failed to get it when he painted out much of a Hals portrait, in favor of a black background and white pillar.

That unknown hand saw the Dutch in black and white, and many still remember them that way. They miss the deepening role of color. The Dutch were rebelling against Mannerism and the Flemish. Both demanded intricate patterning and glossy surfaces, with status symbols up front and center. That early room at the Met holds a Mannerist oil on copper, so that naked bodies plainly shine. Ruisdael's uncle, Salomon van Ruysdael, still leans to silvery blues and greens in his seascapes.

In no time, color enters the shadows and invents the light. An early Ruisdael at the Met scrapes and scumbles it into foreground vegetation. As ever, Rembrandt has it nailed. Layers of paint create firm anatomy for sketchy hands and heavy chins, where another would leave smears of yellow and brown. They give his smock a tapestry of brushwork, in a self-portrait at a moment between maturity and bankruptcy. The artist's cap tilts jauntily, again poised between work clothes and high style. One can see his expression as wearied or experienced, detached or engaging the viewer's eyes.

He would fit just fine with the image of an artist in Brooklyn now, give or take the wrinkles and white hairs, and his rediscovery in the nineteenth century helped create just that image. Talk about modesty and boasting, about realism and nationalism, or about climate change and denial. Either way, the Dutch still sound awfully familiar, even as Modernism's utopias can sound awfully far away. As it happened, commerce succeeded all too well, although the tulip bubble collapsed by 1640. Haarlem lost importance to urban centers just a few miles inland, Amsterdam largely forgot Rembrandt, and hard edges came back in fashion to record glitzier and glitzier possessions. Wish the middle class luck today.

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"Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 10, 2011.


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