Sunday, August 23, 2015

Day 11: The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem

Frans Hals, one of the great portrait painters of the Dutch Golden Age of painting, lived in Haarlem, which was quite a distance from Amsterdam in the 1600s, when horses and horse-drawn vehicles provided the only transportation. Nowadays, it is a 45-minute train ride from Amsterdam Central Station. From the train station in Haarlem, there's a 20 minute walk to the museum; we got bad directions and ended up walking about 40 minutes, but Haarlem is an interesting town.

Street in Haarlem
Photo by Dan L. Smith

In the 1600s it was a powerful and prosperous city, and a center of art and culture. The museum is located in a building that was originally an almshouse, a residential facility for old men in poverty.

Entrance to Frans Hals Museum
On a narrow street

It has some attractive features, but it is totally unsuitable for exhibiting art. Except for a few well-lighted galleries, most of the rooms have dim and spotty artificial light, and the light from the many windows only serves to create glare.

Interior of Frans Hals Museum

The museum houses a variety of work by artists based in Haarlem, but its biggest star is Frans Hals. They don't have his best work; as with most important artists, his best paintings are at the big national and metropolitan museums. What this museum preserves is a trove of his paintings of the militia groups of Haarlem, plus many portraits.

In the 1600s, each Dutch town had its own militia to guard the gates and patrol the streets at night. Terms in the militia generally lasted 3 years, and concluded with a banquet. Every group wanted to have a painting of themselves to hang in the meeting hall, with each guardsman paying for his own likeness. Many of these group portraits required a whole term to paint; I imagine each guardsman had to sit for the artist separately; he would sketch them, then fit their likeness into the composition as a whole.

These paintings were typically ten feet wide, or more, and seven or eight feet high. The exhibit hall had skylights that produced glare across the top half of the paintings. Thus, I have to admit that none of my photos are much good. I'll include a few here just to give you an idea about this important genre.

This is Frans Hals' earliest militia painting. The composition has interesting variety, but it lacks unity because half the guardsmen are looking toward the viewer, while half are looking elsewhere. Are they supposed to be caught in the midst of a discussion, some of them still talking?

Frans Hals, 1582-1666
Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard, 1616

The next two paintings were created in the same three-year span. It was a challenge to make each one unique and interesting.

Frans Hals, 1582-1666
Banquet of the Officers of the Callivermen Civic Guard, 1624-1627

Frans Hals, 1582-1666
Banquet of the Officers of the Callivermen Civic Guard, 1624-1627

It wasn't just militia groups that wanted their portraits painted. Every civic group wanted to be memorialized. Here's a group of hospital administrators. This painting is similar in composition to Rembrandt's The Syndics, at the Rijksmuseum, which was painted 20 years later. This suggests that Rembrandt borrowed this composition, but enhanced its unity and drama.

Frans Hals, 1582-1666
Regents of the St. Elizabeth Hospital, 1641

It is interesting to observe that wealthy women also had civic responsibilities in the 1600s, and they too wanted a group portrait. This one is by Hals' biggest rival, Verspronck, and he painted it the same year as Hals' portrait of the Regents.

Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, 1601-1662
Regentesses of St. Elisabeth’s Hospital, 1641

In addition to Hals' group portraits, the museum also has many of his individual portraits. This next example is sober and rigid, though the woman's face is pleasant enough. The interesting part is the gloves, one on and one off. Why not include both bare hands, as was customary. And the gloves are painted in a very loose and brushy manner. The viewer looks back and forth between the gloves and the eyes.

 Frans Hals, 1582-1666
Portrait of a Woman with Gloves, c. 1650

The next painting looks more relaxed. The sitter is off-guard, just being himself. The brushwork is loose and expressive, but the textures are very convincing.

 Frans Hals, 1582-1666
Portrait of an Unknown Man, c. 1638

Hals' major rival in Haarlem was Johannes Verspronck. His style was very tight and refined. The next two paintings depict a husband and wife.

Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, 1601-1662
Portrait of Anthonie Charles de Liedekercke, 1637

Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, 1601-1662
Portrait of Willemina van Braeckel, 1637

The market for portraits was so big in Haarlem, that a woman was able to succeed in this field. Judith Leyster's most famous work is portraits of merry drinkers, but she could be sober when appropriate.

Judith Leyster, 1609-1660
Portrait of an Unknown Woman, 1635

Haarlem also had an important painter of still lifes, Pieter Claesz. He had photographic ability to render objects. It was typical to include a lemon, a knife projecting off the table, overturned glassware, and a standing serving piece, along with various foods. I think a certain symbolism is implied that is lost in the modern age.

Pieter Claesz, 1596-1660
Still Life, 1632

Another Haarlem artist specialized in buildings, both exteriors and interiors.

Pieter Saenredam, 1597-1665
Interior of St. Anna’s Church in Haarlem, 1652

We later walked through the square depicted below.

Pieter Saenredam, 1597-1665
The Market Square at Haarlem, 1696

Important artists worked in Haarlem in the 1500s as well the 1600s. In those days, myths were an important subject, and the style was more robust and physical. This was the influence of the Italian Renaissance style.

Maerten van Heemskerck, 1498-1574
Triumphal Procession of Bacchus, c. 1536

The next painting combines myth with portraiture. The client commissioned a larger-than-lifesize portrait of himself as Hercules. Some ego, huh?

Hendrick Goltzius, 1558-1617
Hercules and Cacus, 1613

The museum's café was in the new, modern visitor's hall, but the menu was skimpy and weird. The museum surrounds a large, pleasant, old-fashioned courtyard.

Courtyard of Frans Hals Museum
Photo by Dan L. Smith

We enjoyed our walk back to the train station, though I managed to lose the photos I took.

Canal in Haarlem
Photo by Dan L. Smith

A row of sidewalk cafés in Haarlem
Photo by Dan L. Smith

Only a dedicated art lover would make the trek out to Haarlem to see the Frans Hals Museum, because the effort is great and the payoff is moderate. Frans Hals was a truly great artist and it was good to see so much of his work together, and I was interested to learn that so many famous Dutch artists made their careers in Haarlem. It was a good excuse to see a smaller town.