Drunkard or genius? London’s National Gallery gets up close and personal with Frans Hals


The painting The Laughing Cavalier (1624) is perhaps better known in the UK than its creator, the Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals. After it was exhibited at the Bethnal Green Museum (now the Young V&A) in London towards the end of the 19th century, its popularity with the public led it to be reproduced on a mass scale and christened with its current title. It has resided at the Wallace Collection in London for the past 120 years, a captive of the institution’s strict rules prohibiting the lending of works from its collection, which were relaxed in 2019.

The painting will now be lent for the first time to the National Gallery for a major Hals survey opening this month, with key loans coming from institutions across Europe and the US. The exhibition, which will also travel to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, will be the first major survey of the Dutch artist’s work in more than three decades and will include around 50 paintings.

Hals’s The Laughing Cavalier (1624) © The Wallace Collection, London

Very little is known about Hals’s personal life as no letters, diaries or similar written accounts exist. “We don’t have a single drawing by Hals” either, says the London show’s curator, Bart Cornelis. We do know the artist was born in Antwerp in the early 1580s and had to flee the city with his family a few years later when the Spanish invaded during the Eighty Years’ War. Hals was trained by Karel van Mander and in 1610 enrolled in the Guild of St Luke, which was a requirement for painters setting up studios in the city. By all accounts, Hals seems to have had a late start as a master painter and historians can only speculate about the years before he set up his studio.

The painter Matthias Scheits, who met Hals in later life, wrote that “in his youth [Hals] led a rather lusty life”. Hals also gained a posthumous reputation as a drunkard, thanks to an entry in Arnold Houbraken’s early 18th-century biography of Dutch painters. Houbraken said Hals was often drunk and a bad influence on his many children and apprentices. The show’s curators, however, are keen to point out that while it is likely that he would have liked a drink, there is little concrete evidence that he was a debauched drunkard. The demeanour of many of his subjects—laughing, drinking and casually posed—has no doubt helped that reputation persist.

Hals’s A Militiaman holding a Berkemeyer is also known as the Merry Drinker (around 1629) © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Hals worked for a time restoring old paintings before making a name for himself as a skilled portraitist, and in particular for painting huge group pictures of the local civic guards. Militia paintings are a specifically Dutch sub-genre, made to be displayed in club houses and city halls and paid for by the men themselves. (The most famous example is Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, 1642, currently undergoing a public conservation at the Rijksmuseum).

Hals’s most important militia paintings are housed in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, which will be lending Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard (1627) to the show (along with another large later painting, Regents of the Old Men’s Alms House, 1664). The work will be leaving Haarlem for the first time in its history and the museum had to get special permission from the local government to be able to send any of its monumental militia paintings to Amsterdam let alone London. Part of the reason is that when one of the museum’s prized paintings, The Banquet of The Officers of the Calivermen Civic Guard (1627), was shipped to London for an exhibition in the 1950s, it got caught up in a storm on the River Thames. Although the work was not damaged, the lenders were spooked by the potential risk and decided to stop lending these vast works from the collection.

Portrait of a Man holding a Skull and Portrait of a Woman standing (both around 1612) are being reunited for the exhibition © Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham; © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees

Later in his career, Hals got commissions to paint wealthier members of society, often in husband-and-wife pairs, many of which were later separated, Cornelis says. A highlight of the exhibition will be the reuniting of these pendants for the first time in decades. Portrait of Pieter Tjarck, with its sitter casually holding an upturned pink rose, will be travelling from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) to be reunited with his rosy-cheeked wife in the National Gallery’s Portrait of Maria Larp (both works around 1635-38).

Also being reunited are Portrait of a Man holding a Skull from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham and Portrait of a Woman from the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House (both around 1611). Recent conservation of the two oil paintings on panel has determined that they are bookmatched panels—painted on opposing sides of split timber.

Although Hals had a successful career, he died in 1666 in relative poverty, leaving few possessions. His work then fell out of fashion over the next 150 years and it was not until the late 19th century that his reputation burgeoned again. This was thanks in part to the writings of the political journalist Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who travelled around the Netherlands documenting some of its greatest artists (he is most famous for rediscovering Johannes Vermeer).

Malle Babbe (around 1640) shows some of Hals’s signature loose brushwork © Photo Scala, Florence / bpk, Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin. Photo: Jörg P. Anders

However, it was Hals’s almost Modern brushwork, loose and near-abstract when viewed up close, that led to a new generation of artists making pilgrimages to Haarlem to make copies of his works and learn from the master. His expressionistic brushstrokes and often “alla prima” painting—“wet-on-wet”, as Cornelis says—attracted the likes of Gustave Courbet, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, James Ensor and Édouard Manet. Sargent said of the Dutchman: “It’s hard to find anyone who knows more about oil paint”.

With the last major show on Hals taking place decades ago, the travelling exhibition aims to reveal the beauty and breadth of Hals’s work to a new generation. As Cornelis notes: “No one under the age of 40 has been able to acquaint themselves… with the genius of one of the greatest portrait painters of all time.”

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Frans Hals, National Gallery, London, 30 September-21 January 2024; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 16 February-9 June 2024; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, 12 July-3 November 2024


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