A major retrospective of the painter Frans Hals (1582/84–1666) is traveling through Europe this year and well worth seeing. On view are approximately 50 of his greatest works, many loaned by leading museums that normally don’t let them out. The tour launched at London’s National Gallery, where it closed on January 21. It now heads to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (February 16–June 9) and finally to Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie (July 12–November 3).
Born in Antwerp but a longtime resident of Haarlem, just west of Amsterdam, Hals is admired for his bold, impressionistic brushwork and ability to capture the vitality of his subjects — who ranged from stately officials to giggling children — making them truly live and breathe on the canvas. His original approach earned him a reputation equaled only by the likes of Rembrandt in the Netherlands and Velázquez in Spain; not surprisingly, he became an in-demand portraitist among the wealthy citizenry of Haarlem and other cities nearby.
During the 18th century, Hals’s work gradually fell into obscurity, and it wasn’t until the next century that French art critic and journalist Théophile Thoré-Bürger rediscovered it, as well as that of Vermeer. Hals’s expressive, gestural brushwork powerfully influenced the French impressionists, and also Courbet, Manet, Whistler, and Sargent. Almost all of them made pilgrimages to the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem to admire his portraits of individuals and civil militia groups, as visitors still can today.
Until the 1960s, Hals was regarded as one of the “big three” of 17th-century Dutch art, alongside Rembrandt and Vermeer. More recently, interest has dissipated, so this exhibition will introduce a new generation to his brilliance. Oddly, this is the first Hals exhibition to be staged in Amsterdam, where visitors are warmly encouraged to take the 20-minute train ride to Haarlem, too.
This tour marks the first time the painting illustrated above, “The Laughing Cavalier,” has returned to the Netherlands since it was purchased in 1865 by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, who created London’s Wallace Collection, where it resides today. A highlight of Hals’s career, this portrait stands apart for its lively immediacy and the intricacy of the costume depicted. Portrayed at age 26, the life-size sitter wears the latest French fashions accessible only to the Dutch elite. The picture was given its catchy title around 1888 and, despite the fact that the gentleman is neither laughing nor a “cavalier,” it has never been renamed.