A master of loose brushwork
In the 17th century, many citizens – flushed with new wealth and confidence – were eager to sit for portraits. The purpose of the portrait was not just to create a likeness, but to reflect the subject’s social status.
Regenten – the ruling patricians – were also keen to be immortalised in group portraits, emphasising their sense of public responsibility. On five occasions, Frans Hals (Antwerp c. 1582 – Haarlem 1666) was commissioned to create a civic guard painting (schutterstuk), regarded as a hugely important task. More than any other painter, Hals managed to weld the guards together into a lifelike group. In these civic guard paintings, he creates a sense of capturing a moment in time which we, the viewers, are stumbling upon.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Hals chose not to give his paintings a smooth finish, aiming instead to keep a sense of ‘life’ in them. Motion implies life, and Hals took care to create a sense of motion in his subjects. With his typically loose brushwork, he managed to create a vivid likeness of those who commissioned him.
Hals was a courageous and technically highly accomplished painter, with a great capacity for stepping away from the canvas (or panel) the moment he felt his subject had come to life. ‘An unusual style of painting, unique to himself and surpassing almost everyone,’ wrote Schrevelius, Hals’s first biographer in the 17th century, of his methods. In the 19th century, Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Gustave Courbet and Eduard Manet visited Haarlem specifically to admire Hals’s 1664 portraits of the patricians of the ‘Oude mannenhuis’ (old men’s almshouse), showing how lasting his influence was.