Frans Hals ‘The Portraitist’

married couple in a garden, frans hals

Frans Hals(c. 1582-1666)

One of the greatest portraitists of the 17th century, Frans Hals was born in Antwerp in the early 1580s. Shortly after his birth, his family moved north to Haarlem, where Hals was to stay for the rest of his life. Here he concentrated almost exclusively on painting local sitters. Unlike his great contemporary Van Dyck, Hals felt no inclination to travel and was not concerned with the achievements of the great Italian masters.

Hals' remarkable style was formed largely in isolation and he was virtually self-taught. The strictly local character of his painting marked a new departure in Dutch art and helped initiate the development of an independent Dutch school. Although he was successful, Hals lived most of his life in poverty, and the few known facts of his life reveal a series of domestic crises. He died in 1666, over 80 years of age.


The Convivial Portraitist

Hals lived and worked in Haarlem for his entire life. Although a highly successful portraitist, with the most prestigious sitters, he was plagued by financial troubles and died impoverished.

Frans Hals was born in Antwerp in 1582 or 1583, the son of Franchoys Hals, a cloth-worker from Mechelen, and Adriaentgen van Geertenrijck of Antwerp. It is not known when Hals' father moved to Antwerp, or when he married, but the couple seem not to have stayed long in the city, for by 1591 they had moved north to Haarlem, one of the largest towns in Holland. On 19 March 1591, Frans' brother Dirck was baptized in Haarlem. Dirck, too, became a painter, and is chiefly remembered for his lively genre scenes.

The family probably moved to Haarlem in, or shortly after, 1585, when Protestant Antwerp fell to invading Spanish forces. The Spanish reestablished Catholicism in Antwerp, and the Protestants were given four years to settle their affairs and leave. In 1585, Franchoys had, in fact, declared himself a Catholic, but this could have been simply a tactical move. Like many of their contemporaries, the family may have moved north partly for religious reasons: the offical religion of the Northern Provinces was that of the Reformed Church, but other religions were treated with enlightened tolerance.

Franchoys' main reason for moving north was, however, probably a financial one. Following the Spanish victory, the Dutch effectively crippled trade with Antwerp by blocking the mouth of the 3 River Scheldt. In the wake of the invasion, over 600 cloth-workers and their families migrated to Haarlem, which had a large textile industry, and the Hals family was almost certainly among them.

picture of antwerp
view of haarlem from noorder spaarne, hendrick c. vroom

Hals' homeland:
Frans Hals was born in Antwerp although his family settled in Haarlem shortly after. Haarlem lies on the River Spaarne in the westerly part of the Netherlands, an area dominated by large expanses of water. The town was a major center of artistic activity, a position it had maintained since the 15th century. In Hals' time, Haarlem was enjoying great prosperity, one source of which was its breweries, whose beer had a great reputation.


Hals' own early years spent in Haarlem remain something of a mystery. An anonymous biographer of the Mannerist artist Karel van Mander included 'Frans Hals, portraitist' in a list of Van Mander's pupils. But Van Mander himself never claimed to have taught Hals, although he mentioned three of his other pupils in his Schilderboeck (The book of painters), published in 1604. It may be that Van Mander was reluctant to acknowledge any association with Hals. Certainly, the two men can have had little in common artistically, and Hals' lack of interest in history painting would not have impressed Van Mander. If Hals was one of his pupils, the relationship must have ended by 1604, when Van Mander is known to have moved to Amsterdam.

The first documented reference to Hals occurs in 1610 when he became a member of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke. It was probably in the same year that he married for the first time. His wife, Annetje Harmansdr, bore him two children - the first, a son named Harmen, was baptized on 2 September 1611. The marriage did not last long, however, for Annetje died in 1615. She was buried in a pauper's grave - the first indication of the financial difficulties which were to plague Hals throughout the rest of his life.

karel van mander umaid art

'The Vasari of the North:
Karel Van Mander founded an academy of painting in Haarlem where Hals may have studied. His book of painters' earned him the reputation as the Vasari of the North'.


Hals' earliest known paintings also date from around 1610, by which time he must have been about 30 years of age. Even allowing for the loss of a number of earlier works, the few remaining facts suggest that Hals reached artistic maturity relatively late, and it was not until 1616 that he received his first major commission - for the group portrait of the Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard Company.

Haarlem had two of these militia companies. Although their structure was military, their function was largely social, and they were renowned for their extensive banquets - in 1621 a law was passed stipulating that the banquets should last no more than 3 or 4 days. Unusually, Hals himself was a member of the St George Militia - membership was usually restricted to the ruling class, or to men of means - and he included his own likeness in his 1639 portrait of the officers of the Company. Hals' personal experience of the St George Militia Company gave him a particular sympathy for their ideals and enabled him to capture their conviviality and comradeship with unusual perceptiveness and skill.

banquet of the officers of the st george civic guard company, frans hals

First civic commission:
By 1616, Hals' reputation as a portraitist of renown was established and he received the first in a series of commissions from the Militia Companies for group portraits.

In 1617 Hals married again. His second wife, Lysbeth Reyniers, was a peasant woman with a quarrelsome temper who is known to have been involved in brawls. She bore the artist at least eight children, three of whom went on to become painters. This ever-expanding family may account in part for Hals' continuing financial difficulties. Although he was undoubtedly successful as a portraitist, Hals was constantly in debt, and in addition to his painting, he undertook occasional picture-dealing and restoration work in order to make ends meet. In 1616 he was summoned to court for failing to pay maintenance to the guardian of the two children from his first marriage. Conveniently, the artist was away on a brief trip to Antwerp, and his mother answered the charge. During the 1630s Hals was sued by both his landlord and his shoemaker, and in 1654 a local baker seized his property because of an unpaid bill. The goods which Hals surrendered were pitifully meager, amounting to three beds, pillows, some linen, an oak cupboard and table, and five paintings, including one by Van Mander.

heeren logement, militia headquaters

Militia headquarters:
Civic Guards proliferated in 17thcentury Holland. Many had grand headquarters for which they commissioned large group portraits. With the demise of their military functions - when peace returned - these became mainly social clubs. By the late 17th century, the St George Civic Guard headquarters, illustrated here, had become an inn.

merry company in a renaissance hall, drick hals

Hals' brother:
Known chiefly for his lively interior genre scenes, Frans Hals' younger brother, Dirck, was also a painter of some repute.

picture of hals museum

Frans Hals Museum:
The Hals Museum in Haarlem, built in 1608, was formerly a home for old men. Today it has the best collection of Hals' work in the world.


There is, however, some evidence to suggest that Hals' difficulties were caused partly by his rebellious and independent spirit. In 1636, when he was in serious financial trouble, Hals refused to complete a lucrative commission for the portrait of an Amsterdam militia company known as The Meagre Company (back cover), because he was unwilling to make the relatively short journey out of Haarlem. When the guards refused to come to him, Hals downed tools, and the portrait had to be completed by another artist.

There was undoubtedly a strain of high-spiritedness in the Hals family. In 1608, Frans' brother Joost was fined in Haarlem for insulting the city's guards, and for throwing rocks which injured a passer-by. Later, in the 1640s Frans Hals and his wife had their daughter Sara sent to a workhouse to improve her lax morals after she had given birth to an illegitimate daughter. Hals himself was apparently an enthusiastic drinker. According to the 17th-century biographer Arnold Houbraken, Hals was filled to the gills every evening,' although the popular image of the painter as an alcoholic and wife-beater is large without foundation.

The 1630s were Hals' most successful years. By then he was in constant demand both for single portraits and for family groups and was commissioned to paint three more large militia pieces. His sitters included men from the highest ranks of society - the city's regents, the civic guards, town councilors, merchants, and scholars.

st bavo's church interior, pieter jansz saenerdam

An austere interior:
Frans Hals was buried in St Bavo's Church in Haarlem in 1666. This view of the church interior by the architectural painter, Pieter Jansz Saenredam, conveys the bareness of the churches at that time. This was due to the Protestant order that walls be whitewashed and all visual imagery banned.

Later, around 1649, he was to paint the famous French scholar René Descartes. Hals was also running a successful studio, although he does not seem to have used his pupils as assistants, and few of them were able to imitate his unique style. Nonetheless, the list of his students includes some of the most distinguished names in Dutch painting, such as his own brother Dirck, and the brilliant genre painter Adriaen Brouwer. The talented Judith Leyster also came under the influence of Hals, and she may even have been a pupil. However, the two artists obviously quarreled and in 1635 she sued Hals for accepting an apprentice who had defected from her studio.

Judith Leyster

Judith Leyster was one of the most talented genre painters of the early 17th century, and the first recorded woman artist to be admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St Luke. It is not known if she was actually Hals' pupil, but she certainly came under his influence and was the only contemporary painter who attempted to emulate his impressionistic technique. Leyster specialized in genre paintings, often depicting children, but she also painted still-lifes and portraits. Her husband, Jan Miensz Molenaer, was also a successful genre painter.

judith leyster self portrait

Self Portrait:
The self confident look in Leyster's lively protrait is that of a female painter in a man's world

a boy playing a flute, judith leyster

A Boy Playing a Flute:
This charming painting is typical of Judhith Leyster's work, full of life and realistic detail.


Hals' success continued until the end of his life, although he suffered a slight drop in commissions after 1640, which may reflect the growing enthusiasm in the Netherlands for the more elegant style of Van Dyck. Nevertheless, it was during his last years that Hals produced some of his best portraits, such as The Regentesses, with its haunting vision of old age.

Hals' financial troubles, however, continued. In 1661 the Guild of St Luke exempted him from payment of his dues, and in 1662 he petitioned the town councilors for assistance. The following year he was granted an annual subsidy of 200 guilders, and in 1664 they provided him with three cartloads of peat. Hals died two years later, on 29 August 1666, over 80 years of age. He was buried in St Bavo's Church in Haarlem.


Painterly Bravura

Hals' portraits have a spontaneity and vitality that bring his sitters to life, giving us a vivid impression of the personalities of the men and women who created the thriving Dutch Republic.

Hals was not only the first great master of the Golden Age of Dutch painting but also one of the most original and distinctive portraitists of any school or period. Almost all his 300 or so surviving paintings are portraits, and even those that are not (some genre scenes and a very occasional religious piece) have a portrait-like character.

He was obviously fascinated with faces, and his work brilliantly captures the personalities of the men and women of the buoyant generations that - after winning freedom from Spanish domination - turned Holland into the most prosperous country in Europe.

The qualities that make Hals' portraits so exceptional were well characterized by his contemporary, Theodorus Schrevelius, a Haarlem schoolmaster who in 1648 published a history of the city called Harlemias.

In an enthusiastic passage on Hals, he wrote: 'By his extraordinary manner of painting, which is uniquely his, he virtually surpasses everyone. His paintings are imbued with such force and vitality that he seems to defy nature herself with his brush.'

Schrevelius, who sat to Hals for his portrait, neatly identified the two outstanding features of Hals' work - his unique brushwork, or 'manner of painting', and the 'force and vitality of his characterization.

the merry drinker 1628-30, frans hals

The Merry Drinker 1628-30:
Portraits of drinkers were commonplace in Dutch art. Many of the pictures had a moralizing intention, but Hals' subject has a sparkle and vigor that advertises the pleasures of drink only.


For Hals, these two qualities were inseparable. The 'force and vitality of his portraits depend directly on his brisk, energetic brushwork, which gives his sitters an irresistible appearance of life. Netherlandish portraits before the time of Hals were painted with a high degree of finish, the brushstrokes carefully blended to create a smooth, polished appearance. By contrast, Hals' brushwork seems daringly free; his brushstrokes are brusque, swift, and disconnected, particularly in his more informal portraits such as the enchanting Laughing Boy. Here, the boy's face is modelled in rough strokes of colour, so free that we can distinguish each separate mark of the brush, especially in the painting of the eyes. The spontaneous 'improvized' appearance of the work is increased by the fact that, unlike previous painters, Hals did not stop to blend the tones and colours used in the face, but placed strokes of contrasting colours directly side by side.

Although at first glance Hals' technique might appear arbitrary, he placed his brushstrokes with unerring precision. His paintings are not abstract combinations of tones and colours - his brushstrokes model the shapes and forms of his sitters with remarkable exactness and are the result of painstaking observation. In Malle Babbe, for example, Hals' apparently carefree brushstrokes capture to perfection the dance of light across the surface of an aged face that is momentarily crumpled with laughter. In The Regentesses, rough dabs of paint model the knotted, tremulous hand that is lying stiffly in the lap of an elderly woman.

laughing boy 1620-25, frans hals

Laughing Boy 1620-25 :
The artist painted several genre scenes of children, usually showing them in simple and endearing activities such as playing musical instruments or blowing soap bubbles. Most of them can be interpreted as representations of one of the five senses or as variations on the vanitas theme, but this laughing boy seems to carry no such meaning. Hals simply painted him as a study in fleeting expression, capturing his laughter in a few swift brushstrokes.

the regentesses 1666, frans hals

The Regentesses 1666:
Hals transformed the apparently unpromising subject of four elderly governesses and their servant into a fascinating portrayal of old age. He did this by emphasizing the individual character of each face and by giving particular prominence to the gnarled hands, which are arranged to form a rhythmic pattern against the shadowy background.

portrait of seated woman c.1660, frans hals

Portrait of a Seated Woman c.1660:
Hals was a master of different moods. The quiet dignity of this unknown woman presents an interesting contrast to the swaggering stances seen in some of the male portraits.

willwm van heythuyzen 1637-39, frans hals

Willem van Heythuyzen 1637-39:
Hals portrayed his subject in a very daring attitude, tipped backward on his chair so that his body forms a strong diagonal across the picture plane. The artist usually employed plain backgrounds, but here he found it necessary to balance the sitter's precarious pose by including the room behind him.


Hals achieved these effects by adopting a fairly simple working procedure. No drawings by him are known, and he seems to have worked directly onto the canvas without preliminaries. The light in his portraits always comes from the left, from a single source, and by working in this way, he developed a deep and instinctive grasp of the appearance of different types of faces under a specific light source. Having mastered this basic problem, Hals could study the individual variations produced by each sitter in minute detail, reproducing them with a few confident strokes of the brush. This spirited brushwork bestowed on his sitters a unique vitality and life. We see his sitters not as fixed or permanent images, but as individuals caught in a passing moment, with a fleeting, transitory expression.

The composition of Hals' portraits is also relatively simple. Unlike Van Dyck, for example, who created a complete environment for his sitters, Hals placed his sitters against a plain background, focusing attention primarily on the face which was for him the main object of interest. For similar reasons, perhaps, Hals' portraits are mainly head-and-shoulders or half-length portrayals; with the exception of group portraits, he painted only one full-length.

The liveliness of Hals' approach is seen also in the way he modified the poses of conventional portraiture to make them more informal. One of his favorite devices was to place the sitter seated with his arm over the back of the chair, turning round to face the spectator as if we had suddenly caught his attention. The turning pose was not exactly new - it had been a standard feature of portraiture since the Renaissance. Hals, however, gave the motif a greater immediacy, by sharpening the twist of the body.

Another of Hals' favorite compositional schemes was to show the sitter with arms akimbo, an elbow projecting towards us out of the picture space. Hals used this device to particularly good effect in his early militia pieces, such as The Banquet of the Company of St George where several of the men turn towards us with their hands on their hips, as if suddenly disturbed at their revels.


Hals did sometimes modify his style to suit the demands of a particular sitter or commission. In the Laughing Cavalier, for example, the confident and self-assured sitter was clearly anxious to display the sumptuous embroidery on his sleeve. This exquisite decoration offers a clear demonstration both of the sitter's wealth and of his personal taste.

Accordingly, Hals painted the embroidery with small, neat strokes which capture the intricate details and suggest the richness of the stitching. By contrast, the plain cuff and the sash around his waist are painted in a relatively free manner.

In the Portrait of Isabella Coymans, Hals varies his brushwork to similarly brilliant effect. Her face is painted with carefully blended brushstrokes to suggest her smooth, healthy complexion, while her jewelry and clothing are painted with the roughest dashes of color.

boy with a flute 1623-25
boy with a flute 1623-25(detailed), frans hals

Boy with a Flute 1623-25:
This is one of a series of pictures - including Young Man Holding a Skull that shows the type of single genre figure that was popular in Dutch art from the 1620s onwards. Hals used the genre in a particularly original manner, deploying strong directional lighting and bold diagonals, and eliminating detail in favor of the overall dramatic effect. The raised hand - suggested by a few slashes of paint - shows that the boy has been interrupted midgesture, adding to the animation of the scene.

Symbols and Emblems

During the 1620s and 30s, Hals painted a number of lively genre scenes. Like most genre paintings, these make abundant use of symbols and emblems. Such devices were enormously popular in Dutch art and added a rich complexity of meaning to scenes that, to the modern eye, might appear quite straightforward. While some of Hals' symbols are self-explanatory, others are more obscure and derive from contemporary emblem literature. Emblem books, which originated in the 16th century, contained collections of pictures or pictorial devices, which were given symbolic meaning by a motto or inscription. These books enjoyed a tremendous vogue in Hals' time, and artists often used them as a source of symbols, confident that the viewer would be able to recognize and understand fully their true significance.

the shrovetide revellers, frans hals

The Shrovetide Revellers:
Two of the figures represent characters from the theatre; the Hans Wurst - with the sausage hanging from his cap, and Pickle Herring, with the herrings in his festival garland. A herring was the symbol of a fool, as was the fox tail held by Pickle Herring. The spoon in the third man's hat is a symbol of greed, while the sausages and the bag pipes have erotic associations.

a young man holding a skull, frans hals

A Young Man Holding a Skull:
This has often been thought to represent Shakespeare's Hamlet soliloquizing on the death of Yorick. In fact it is probably a vanitas image, designed to remind the viewer of the transience of earthly life. The skull was a common symbol of death and was often included in portraits, to remind the sitter of his own mortality. Here, the boy's vitality and youthful charm lend a particular poignancy to this solemn reminder of death.

the prodigal son in a tavern, frans hals

The Prodigal Son in a Tavern:
This may seem like a simple scene of a drinker and his sweetheart, but it almost certainly depicts the Prodigal Son carousing in a tavern, a common theme in Dutch art, and one with clear moral overtones. The dog symboliześ greed and unchastity.

laughing cavalier, frans hals
laughing cavalier(detailed), frans hals

Other emblematic devices on the cavalier's sleeve include flaming cornucopias, winged arrows, lovers' knots, and bees. These were all familiar elements in emblems of love. These fascinating details, lovingly depicted by Hals, are displayed by the sitter with ostentatious care.


In the Family Grou, Hals' technique is altogether more restrained. During the 1640s fashion in the Netherlands had in fact become more subdued, with sober black costumes becoming de rigor for the well-to-do. Hals has painted the respectable family, particularly the older members, with due respect for their sobriety and discretion. At the same time, the painting demonstrates how Hals could create interest even within a simple expanse of black cloth, by subtly varying his tones. It may have been a painting such as this that led Van Gogh to exclaim that 'Frans Hals has no less than 27 blacks'.

Hals' greatest gift, however, was his talent for characterization. Each one of his sitters is a distinct individual captured, we feel, with their most characteristic expression. Hals' unique genius in this respect is seen most clearly in his large militia pieces. Commissions such as this presented a particular problem for the artist, who was faced with the task of arranging a large group of figures in such a way that each face was equally visible, and no individual gave undue prominence. At the same time, he had to avoid the monotony of placing each figure facing towards the front, as if the painting was a school photograph. Hals solved these problems superbly. In the Banquet of the Officers of St George, for example, he creates an impressive variety by placing the heads of the figures at continually contrasting angles. But the real variety is in creating an array of perfectly characterized individuals. Around the crowded table, we see a gallery of personalities and expressions from the cautious, enquiring elderly man, to the confident young ensign, and the delightfully jovial and humorous Colonel seated at the table's head.

Hals was one of the first generations of Dutch painters to live and work exclusively in Holland and this had important implications for his art. Whereas the previous generation of Dutch artists had looked to Italy for their inspiration, Hals had little interest in Italian art with its emphasis on the historical subject matter and its concept of ideal human beauty. He took his subjects from everyday life and portrayed the Dutch people he saw around him. Hals does not appear to have flattered or idealized his sitters. As far as we can tell, he did not modify or 'improve their features to conform to an accepted standard of beauty. He seems to have shown them exactly as they were with all their peculiarities and the individuality of their features. It is this which enables us to identify with Hals' sitters as flesh-and-blood personalities. Van Gogh paid a moving tribute to this feature of Hals' painting when he wrote to his brother Theo from Antwerp: 'My thoughts are all the time full of Rembrandt and Hals, not because I see so many of their pictures, but I see among the people here so many types that remind me of that time.'


Van Gogh wrote at a time – the 1880s – when Hals' reputation was at its height. After being almost forgotten for many years after his death, he became a major influence on avant-garde French painters such as Manet, who admired the spontaneity of his brushwork. Society portraits were taken with his verve and panache, and he became a particular favorite with American collectors, which explains why so many outstanding works by him are in the USA. From about 1870 to about 1920 Hals was, without doubt, one of the most popular of the Old Masters. Since then, his status has slipped a little, perhaps because of the almost inevitable comparisons with Rembrandt - a comparison that only a handful of the world's greatest artists could sustain. To be Holland's second greatest portraitist, is, however, no meaningful distinction.


Single-figure Genre Painting

The tradition of single-figure genre painting originated largely in the work of the 17th-century Italian painter Caravaggio. Drawing on the works of earlier Flemish artists Caravaggio painted numerous single figures in exotic dresses. His achievements were introduced into the Netherlands by the Utrecht Caravaggisti, a group of Dutch artists such as Gerrit van Honthorst, who had been to Rome and seen his works firsthand. Hals was also greatly influenced by the various figures of the Caravaggisti.

the merry fiddler, gerrit van honthorst

Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656) The Merry Fiddler:
Single genre figures often represent one of the Five Senses. The exact significance of this figure is unclear - it has been suggested that he personifies either Taste or Hearing. But where the artist intended an allegorical meaning this is usually made clear, and the inclusion of both a violin and a wine glass makes the figure rather ambiguous.

spanish guitarrist, edouard manet

Edouard Manet (1832-83) The Spanish Guitarist: Manet said of his exotic guitar player: 'In painting this figure I had in mind Madrid master, and also Hals'. Single genre figures were also popular in 17th century Spain and among the 'Madrid masters' Manet was probably thinking primarily of Velasquez he was certainly influenced by Velasquez's painting technique. Musicians also figure largely in Hals' work.


Married Couple in a Garden

The subjects of this delightful portrait can probably be identified as the merchant and explorer, Isaac Massa, and his first wife, Beatrix van der Laen. Massa had his own portrait painted twice by Hals and the features in these works correspond closely with those of the sitter here. The portrait was probably painted to commemorate the couple's marriage, on 25 April 1622. It is certainly a marriage portrait for the woman clearly displays her ring, worn here on the index finger, in line with contemporary fashion.

The couple appear to have just moved away from the company on the lawn, to enjoy a moment alone in a secluded bower. the woman's shy smile and affectionate gesture add to the inforality of this charming work so gracefully displaying Hals' expertise.

married couple in a garden, frans hals
married couple in a garden(detailed), frans hals

Contrasting textures:
Hals captures perfectly the contrast between the dull texture of the fine lace collar and the black of Massa's coat.

married couple in a garden(detailed), frans hals

A merry company:
These elegant couples in the park recall outdoor merry company scenes, and reinforce the mood of happiness.

portrait of isaac massa, frans hals

Isaac Massa:
Hals painted this fine portrait of Massa in 1626, about four years after the wedding picture. According to the inscription on the chair, Massa was then 41. He was a merchant, explorer, and cartographer, who had commercial interests in Russia. It has been suggested that the view of a landscape, which is unusual in Hals' portraits, refers to his activities in foreign parts.


Hals was almost exclusively a portraitist and he was equally a master with paintings of men, women, and children, double portraits, and group portraits. The sitters in Hals' paintings usually seem to enjoy life, and no other painter has depicted smiles and laughter so convincingly, as is shown so memorably in such varied works as The Laughing Cavalier, The Gipsy Girl, Malle Babbe, and Isabella Coeymans.

It is perhaps in his group portraits that Hals best shows his remarkable skill in characterization (as well as his inventiveness in composition). His two pictures of A Family Group in a Landscape and his Married Couple in a Garden convey the ordered contentment of a society that in its modest way marks one of the high points of European civilization. And The Banquet of the Officers of the St Hadrian Civic Guard Company, one of a remarkable series of such pictures, is a triumphant portrayal of warm and high-spirited comradeship and a tour de force of technical virtuosity.

nurse and child c.1620, frans hals

Nurse and Child c.1620:
This is one of the most captivating of Hals' early works. The woman and child are observed with great freshness and Lookout as if they had just been diverted by the spectator. Although he is renowned for the boldness of his brushwork, Hals showed here how beautifully and delicately he could paint elaborately detailed costumes when the occasion demanded. The sex of the child is uncertain, as boys and girls this young were dressed alike at this period so it was difficult to tell them apart.

malle babbe c.1630-33, frans hals

Malle Babbe c.1630-33:
Nothing is known of Malle Babbe (the name is recorded on the wooden stretcher of the canvas), but she must have been a formidable character. The owl on her shoulder is a curious detail; it is now usually associated with wisdom, but in the past, it symbolized many qualities, including drunkenness.

family group in a landscape, frans hals

Family Group in a Landscape c.1648:
The identity of the family is unknown, but the negro servant may indicate that the man had connections with the West Indies. It is thought that the background is by Pieter de Molyn, a Haarlem landscape specialist.

stephanus geraerdts c.1650-52, frans hals

Stephanus Geraerdts c.1650-52:
Stomhanus Geraerdts was an alderman and councillor of Haarlem. This and the portrait of his wife (opposite) form a pair linked by action on the two figures, a fact that makes it lamentable that the painting have been separated. The sitters are identified by their coats of arms in the background of each picture.


Dutch Independence

The bitter struggle between the Netherlandish provinces and their Spanish overlords lasted for almost a century and ended in the creation of the modern Dutch nation.

In 1585, Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, seized Antwerp for the Spanish, and the Hals family amongst others moved north to Holland. Since the real start of the Netherlands revolt in the 1560s, thousands of refugees had left the southern provinces, taking their skills and wealth to the independent North or even abroad. Seventeen northern Netherland provinces were uneasily united in a Calvinist-organised rebellion against the Spanish overlords; the revolt was sustained by profits from Dutch trade, and given some respectability by the leading noble family, The House of Orange.

Spanish foreign interests were too widespread, and resources were never concentrated to crush the Netherlands. When Phillip II of Spain died in 1598, he left his daughter Isabella and her husband Albert to rule the southern Netherlands, with orders to curb the success of the so-called United Provinces. In effect, the Low Countries were partitioned into a Protestant North and a Catholic South - which roughly corresponded to the modern nations of Holland and Belgium.

Isabella and Albert, known as the Archdukes, had a personal sympathy for the land they governed. In 1609, a 12-year truce was signed between the equally exhausted Spanish and Dutch, and the Archdukes set about repairing the devastated South. They achieved an economic and spiritual regeneration: the population rose, the trade industry recovered and Catholicism launched a missionary offensive against Protestantism. This enlightened government gave the southern Netherlands a sense of itself: an embryonic identity, which enabled it to survive the er Dutch and French invasions when Spanish aid was limited.

War had helped unify the United Provinces, and the ceasefire of 1609 showed up the differing factions. The House of Orange needed military command to maintain its power, while the province of Holland (the richest and therefore the strongest in the union) desired peace. War had been expensive, and since 1605 the Spanish Army had been led by the able Spinola and little had been achieved by the United Provinces. In addition, the Spanish were heaping up embargoes on Dutch trade - a particularly effective form of warfare. But the 12-year truce was not an idle time for the Dutch. An unofficial war continued in the form of pirating trade in the Spanish colonies, while the government of the United Provinces concluded alliances with Spain's enemies. The idea was to divert Spanish resources away from the Netherlands to other trouble spots. So the Dutch formed a series of Islamic alliances - with Morocco in 1608, the Ottoman Empire in 1611, and Algiers in 1612, and soon became the chief supplier of arms to North Africa.

fishing for souls, Adriaen van de Venne

Fishing for souls:
The Dutch artist Adriaen van der Venne used Christ's promise 'I will make you fishers of men' to make an ironic comment on the jealousy that existed between the rival religious powers of the Dutch Republic and Spain. The Dutch Protestants on the left bank face the Spanish Catholics on the right, while in the center boats from both sides compete with each other for the capture of the souls of the innocent.

the spanish fury, Jan Luycken

The Spanish fury:
The Spanish ruled the southern Netherlands by terror. A horrifying incident of their brutality occurred in 1576 when the Spanish garrison in Antwerp mutinied and sacked the city, pillaging property and killing without mercy. When the city fell to the Spanish in 1585 many Flemish Protestants fled to the North, fearing for their lives.


The Truce of 1609 had at least one effect the Spanish had cause to regret: the acceptance of the Dutch as an independent nation by other world powers. Consequently, England and France both sent permanent ambassadors to The Hague, and the Dutch began to test their newfound position in world affairs. In 1616 the United Provinces offered support to the Duke of Savoy in his dispute with Spain and this conflict might have reopened in the Low Countries if the Pope had not successfully intervened. A similar situation that arose when the Dutch supported Venice was only saved by diplomacy. Meanwhile the Spanish diverted much of their New World silver to defend their colonies, particularly the Philippines, against Dutch naval attack. As the Englishman Owen Feltham wrote a few years later of the Dutch: 'They are the little swordfish pricking the bellies of the Whale'. The slow-moving Spanish Whale seemed an increasingly easy target.

War was resumed in 1621. In the United Provinces, the peace party of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt had been routed and its leader executed: in Spain, colonial power had become the greatest issue, and no longer was religion a great motivating force. Thus the war was predominantly an economic struggle, while the military and the naval stalemate was occasionally enlivened by significant victories. Again the Spanish placed embargoes on Dutch trade; ironically the Dutch merchants responded by profiting from supplying the Spanish army in the southern Netherlands that their government was fighting. The Dutch navy continued to prick the Spanish colonial belly, and in 1624 seized parts of Portuguese Brazil, though only to lose them the following year.

middelburg harbour, a. van de venne

A mercantile power :
Dutch economic strength was founded on maritime trade. The merchant fleet grew from around 400 ships in 1532 to over 2500 vessels a century later.

ruben's allegory

The effects of war:
Rubens' allegory on the destruction of war had a personal relevance. As ambassador, the artist had tried to reconcile warring Spain and the Netherlands.

prince maurice of nassau

prince Maurice of Nassau:
The cause of Dutch Independence was greatly helped by the military genius of Prince Maurice of Nassau. During the 1590s his army gradually forced the Spanish to withdraw from Dutch territory.


Meanwhile Spain enjoyed two victories over the Dutch. In 1625 Spanish troops captured the prestigious town of Breda, and in the following year, the Spanish fleet beat the Dutch off Gibraltar. The Dutch retaliated by forming an alliance with England and Denmark against the Habsburgs' German interests, which effectively diverted Spain's attention to Denmark. In this period the Dutch also seized the Spanish treasure fleet - a a serious blow to an Empire continually facing bankruptcy. Throughout the 1620s the Spanish were anxious for peace (at one point the artist Rubens was an unsuccessful peace envoy between the two countries) but the United Provinces would not agree to the terms, which included a stipulation for greater Dutch religious tolerance.

The United Provinces may have been holding their own against Spain, but to do so meant an alliance with France. When the southern The Netherlands showed signs of revolt in the late 1620s, the French supported the rebel cause. There was to be no question of a United Netherlands - if the South was overrun, the land was to be partitioned between France and the United Provinces. But in 1636 the Spanish took the offensive and sent an army into Picardy.

However, Spain's resources were so overstretched that such a venture was doomed to failure. By 1639 French armies had cut the land route to Spain and the Dutch had decisively beaten the Spanish fleet in the Battle of the Downs. But the United Provinces were beginning to realize the danger of a powerful France as an ally and neighbor. In 1639 Richelieu reduced the French subsidy to The Hague, because the Dutch were not causing enough trouble to employ Spanish resources.

flowermarket, berckheyde

Civic pride:
Work on Amsterdam's new Town Hall – seen here from one of the canals – was begun in 1648, the year that the Treaty of Munster was signed. The treaty amounted to the final recognition of the Dutch independence, and the Town Hall became a symbol of Amsterdam's civic pride and her important place in the new Dutch nation.

Banquet at the Crossbowman's Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster, 1648, bartholomeus van der helst

A celebration of peace:
Peace was finally concluded between the Netherlands and Spain with the signing of the Treaty of Munster in 1648. The St George's Guard in Amsterdam celebrated the event in characteristic style - with a lavish banquet.


As late as 1644, the bankrupt Spanish army in Flanders attempted to invade France. The victorious French captured towns in the southern Netherlands and this constituted a veiled threat to the United Provinces. But peace negotiations were underway and the Spanish made every effort to detach the United Provinces from French influence. By the Treaty of Munster in 1648, Spain at last fully recognized Dutch independence. Despite secret negotiations by the House of Orange to prolong the war, the Dutch peace faction prevailed.

William II of Orange died suddenly and during the minority of his son, the United Provinces were governed by an uneasy democratic coalition, with Jan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary or chief officer of the province of Holland, playing a guiding role. As the Spanish Empire failed, France loomed as the greater threat to the independent Dutch. The Spanish army in Flanders was financed after 1648 largely by Amsterdam bankers, for it was politically, if not financially, expedient to have a buffer state between the United Provinces and France. A complete reversal of the Dutch-Spanish conflict was finally brought about by Louis XIV's ambitions to invade the Low Countries. Ironically, in 1674 it was the turn of the Spanish to ally with the Dutch against the might of France. Not only had Spain unreservedly acknowledged the independence of the United Provinces, and been forced to depend on the Dutch to maintain the Spanish Netherlands, but even the Dutch had sought an alliance with their former enemy against France. The wheel had indeed turned.

the states general, d. van delen

The States General :
The States General was the sovereign voice of the United Provinces, although each state kept its autonomous administration, and decisions that affected all the states were referred to a referendum. This painting shows the meeting that took place in 1651 when the States General tried to draw up a new constitution for the nation.

holland's lion symbol

Holland's symbol :
The lion was the traditional symbol of all the northern and southern Netherlandish provinces in the years before Dutch Independence. In 1648 Nicholas Visscher gave the age-old image an ironic slant when he used it to symbolize the northern province of Holland standing alone.

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