Review. Frans Hals: The Male Portrait at the Wallace Museum

A stunning new display of over 12 works by Frans Hals, one of the greatest masters of the Dutch Golden Age, offers a unique perspective on 17th century masculinity and sense of style. In a breakaway from the male gaze upon the female form, Hals fixes his painterly eye upon his male contemporaries. The portraits are displayed against a dark background, with subtle gallery lighting except for spotlights on each painting. It is a sexy, elegant and theatrical setting, and I fell in love with every single one.

Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, Photos © Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London. Detail of the lace and embroidery.

Hals’ works are rich in colour and detail. The men appear relaxed and confident in their own skin. Each sitter is dressed in the finest attire and there’s fun to be found in spotting each individual’s little quirk in dress or pose. As today, styles of hair differ from a cropped head to long flowing locks. A clipped moustache is the order of the day often with an equally tidy ‘royale’ beard. Many of the men don hats (how I wish that fashion would return) sometimes worn at a rakish angle with a stylish flair. Another commonality is a prop of some kind, a skull or a pair of expensive leather gloves. Nothing is accidental or incidental, and one of the delights of Hals’ work is in reading each detail which adds another dimension of a man’s background or trade.

Side by side, Frans Hals’ portraits. L to R: The Laughing Cavalier, 1624, © Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London; Pieter van den Broecke, c. 1633, © Historic England Archive. Van den Broecke was just 36 years when this was painted and by his dress and pose portrays the quintessentially successful gentleman.

This is the first time that Hals’ handsome The Laughing Cavalier has been shown alongside Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman. Until now the ‘Cavalier’ has never been subject to technical analysis. It has been proposed that wealthy Haarlem textile merchant, Roosterman, was the same figure as the Cavalier. Findings of the examination will be revealed in due time no doubt.

Previously ‘lost to obscurity’, a revival in Hals’ work in the 19th century came about through the purchase of The Laughing Cavalier in 1865 by the Wallace Collection’s principal founder, the 4th Marquess of Hertford. In a sensational bidding at auction with Baron James de Rothschild a determined Lord Hertford paid more than six times the estimate (51,000 francs) for the picture. The subsequent publicity resulted in prices for Hals’ paintings soaring.

The Cavalier’s dress is sumptuous with copious amounts of lace, embroidery and satin. Conversely, in the Pieter van den Broecke portrait the clothing is dark and sombre apart from a ‘belt’ of black rosettes around his middle. This is the only painting in the exhibition prohibiting photography so it was not possible to take a close up. The collar, reaching almost to his shoulders, makes a dramatic statement. A wide fine lace cuff is worn on the right hand and on the left, a single cream leather glove.

Gloves confer protection but are imbued with symbolism whether ceremonial, social standing or eroticism. Hands play a significant part in communication and gloves were also emblematic of fidelity and loyalty. Think too of a gentleman challenging another to a duel by slapping his face with a folded glove. Sotherby’s have an excellent article on the significance of gloves over the centuries.

Men’s style

L to R: one of Hals’ earliest works shows formal dress and pose. Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull, 1610-14, © The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham; a later work shows the sitter in a casual pose and more extravagant style. Frans Hals, Willem Coymans, 1645. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.69.

Hals’ genius is in his technique resulting in portraits alive with vitality and animation, something entirely new to the genre at that time. The earlier portraits are finely painted with intense details. Later pieces are more relaxed, both in terms of the sitter’s apearance and the fluid brushwork and restricted palette, a style that later developed with Impressionism.

In Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull, 1610-14, the sitter sports severe, cropped hair and a formal neck ruff in the Spanish style. The inscription gives his age as 60 and it’s presumed the skull is a reference to his age. It’s interesting to note that not only is this gentleman 60 at a time when it’s generally thought longevity was short but he appears hale and healthy. His handsome demeanour and ‘full set’ is reminiscent of the 16th century English statesman, soldier, spy, writer, explorer and landed gentleman, St Walter Raleigh.

The Hamlet-like tableau (Shakespeare’s tragedy was written between 1599-1601) is far more sombre in tone compared to, say, the later portrait, Willem Coymans, 1645. Here a member of Holland’s most influential marchant family poses in a relaxed, debonair stance. As a single man, his dress is more flamboyant than portraits of married men. Coymans wears a bold, geometric-style, linen collar in contrast to an elarborately gold-embroidered doublet. His long flowing locks reach past his shoulders and his casually-tilted hat is adorned with a black fabric flower or pom-pom. Coymans is a clearly an affluent man with a sense of flamboyance.

L to R: Frans Hals, Portrait of Francois Wouters, c. 1643-45, © National Galleries of Scotland; detail of his bare wrist above the cuff.

In contrast the Portrait of Francois Wouters (1643-45), commissoned on the occasion of his second marriage as part of a pair with his new wife, depicts a more subdued character. Wouters is dressed to suit a status as both newly married and a successful brewer, city councillor, alderman and burgomaster. He is dressed completely in an unadorned black costume apart from a simple, almost Puritan, linen collar. The delightful surprise here is how Hals reveals a suggestive glimpse of white wrist above a crumpled glove.

Frans Hals. Isaac Abrahamsz Massa, 1626. Bequest of Frank P. Wood, 1955. © Art Gallery of Ontario. 54_31.

Above is a portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz Massa (1626), a close friend of Hals. This time the sitter is holding a spring of holly. The plant traditionally represents friendship and constancy and may therefore refer to their friendship. His pose, leaning on the back of a chair, is a departure from the style at the time. It feels so realistic and despite his distracted glance to one side if feels as if I am the object of his attention, as if he’s about to make a thoughtful comment. The view of a forest in Muscovy in the background – possibly not by Hals but another artist Pieter de Molijn – refers to how Massa made his fortune as a silk merchant in Russia.

Later portraits at simpler in both dress style and brushwork. L to R: Frans Hals, Pieter van den Broecke, in flambouyant dress. c. 1633, © Historic England; Frans Hals, Portrait of an Unknown Man, c. 1660-63, © The Fitzwilliam Museum features a simpler style.

In Portrait of a Man, Possibly Nicolaes Pietersz Duyst van Voorhout the sitter is clothed in a rich satin doublet and the extravagant lace collar reaches almost to his rather portly belly. A Haarlem brewer, van Voorhout evidently enjoyed a brew or two. Satin is notorious for creasing and the folds are created here by Hals’ complexity of brush strokes. It takes a suitably large hat to balance his figure. Set on the back of his head it draws attention to his wild, untameable type of hair. Hals makes this a feature of his personality.

Frans Hals. L to R: Portrait of a Man, Possibly Nicolaes Pietersz Duyst van Voorhout, c. 1636-8, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Jasper Schade, c. 1645, © National Gallery Prague.

Frans Hals’ works reveals his infectious nature as a man with a lively sense of humour, a keen and sensitive intellect, incisive, vigorous and highly observant. Each portrait offers a visual feast and a glimpse into the sitter’s lifestyle and the times. The exhibition is curated by Dr Lelia Packer. The sense of intimacy created is delicious. I’m smitten.

Frans Hals: The Male Portrait at the Wallace Museum runs until 30 January. Tickets £14 and available online

The Wallace Collection is collaborating with men’s health charity Movembeer for this exhibition on special events and initiatives.

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