Frans Hals. Eye to Eye with Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian

Frans Hals. Oog in oog met Rembrandt, Rubens en Titiaan. Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum, from 23 March to 28 July 2013.

1. Frans Hals (1582/1583-1666)
The Regents of the Old Age Hospice in Haarlem, 1664
Oil on Canvas - 170.5 x 249.5 cm
Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum
Photo : Frans Hals Museum

Comparing is not enough. The Haarlem exhibition on Frans Hals, an "adoptive" native son, which attempts to associate the artist with 16th century Venetian painting and also with some of his contemporaries, is a perfect illustration of these cautionary words.
We should start off by saying that although many of the paintings are from the Hals museum, it also obtained many high quality loans, making this retrospective interesting in a way despite its weak theme. Overall however, it remains disappointing.

Karel van Mander, Hals’ master and a theorist on painting (who is represented with two beautiful works), was familiar with the art of Titian and Tintoretto, about whom he spoke with great admiration. Is this enough to justify writing in the catalogue that "Hals was in fact an indirect student of Tintoretto" ? This seems to be a bold statement. Is Hals’ technique close to that of the late Titian and Tintoretto ? To demonstrate this theory, the best way would have been to present something other than this very mediocre Tintoretto from the Prado’s storage rooms. And even the beautiful Titian from Rotterdam does not suffice to show, as compared to Hals, that the same taste for pure painting in one necessarily stems from the other.
Thus many of the comparisons fall short of this goal, either because they are not really revolutionary (the revelation of the close ties between Hals and Judith Leyster, his student, is not going to radically change the course of art history), or else correspond simply to superficial resemblances given the common dates and context, such as between The Regents of the Old Age Hospice in Haarlem (ill. 1) by Frans Hals and the portraits of Jacob Trip and his wife by Rembrandt held at the National Gallery in London. If the purpose is to underscore the brilliance of the first, the exhibition fails to do so since Rembrandt’s depth, psychological penetration and extraordinary technique far surpass the art of Hals.

2. Frans Hals (1582/1583-1666)
The Portrait of Nicolaes van der Meer, 1631
Oil on Panel - 128 x 100.5 cm
Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum
Photo : Frans Hals Museum

3. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Portrait of Jan Vermoelen, 1616
Oil on Panel - 137 x 97 cm
Vienna, Princes of Liechtenstein Collection
Photo : D. R.

Frans Hals is a great painter in his own right, and there is no need to compare him to others in order to prove it. Some comparisons, however, are more effective. Thus, one room presents The Portrait of Nicolaes van der Meer by Frans Hals (ill. 2) alongside two other male portraits belonging to the collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein : that of Jan Vermoelen by Rubens (ill. 3) and one of a man of 55 by Van Dyck. The fact that the last two are very similar is not surprising. But the association with the one by Hals is indeed striking : at least in this case, the artist appears to be as Flemish as he is Dutch. We should remember that he was in fact born in Antwerp and that he spent quite some time there in 1616. Nevertheless, with some exceptions, many comparisons fall flat like that between Pekelharing by Hals (ill. 4) and François Langlois (ill. 5) by Van Dyck where only the poses are similar.

4. Frans Hals (1582/1583-1666)
Pekelharing, c. 1628/30
Oil on Canvas - 75 x 61.5 cm
Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
Photo : Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister

5. Anton van Dyck (1599-1641)
Portrait of François Langlois, 1631/32
Oil on Canvas - 97.8 x 80 cm
London, The National Gallery
Photo : The National Gallery

In short, visitors should not come to this exhibition (or read the dense catalogue) thinking they will learn anything very new about Hals and Dutch painting in his time. Concluding with a large room which presents several portraits representing companies of officers which belong to the museum, plus a Banquet of Guards from the Company of of Captain Jacob Backer and Lieutenant Jacob Rogh, the show nevertheless presents some very beautiful paintings. This is after all enough to warrant a visit.

Curator : Anna Tummers.

Under the supervision of Anna Tummers, Frans Hals. Eye to Eye with Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian, 2013, Coédition Frans Hals Museum/nai010 publishers, 159 p., 25€. ISBN : 9789462080539.

Visitor information : Frans Hals Museum, Groot Heiligland 62, Haarlem. Tel : (0)23 511 57 75. Open from Tuesday to Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm, Sundays from 12 noon to 5 pm. Admission : 10€ (reduced : 4.40€). Haarlem can be reached by taking the Thalys to Amsterdam.

Version française

Didier Rykner, vendredi 19 avril 2013

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