His ancestors had lived for two centuries in Haarlem; his father was a magistrate there; but for unknown reasons Frans was born in Antwerp; not till he was nineteen did he return to live in Haarlem. We hear no more of him till 1611, when the registry of a Haarlem church notes the baptism of Herman, son of Frans Hals and his wife Anneke. The next record is from a police court (1616), telling how Frans Hals, arrested for undue beating of his wife, was severely reprimanded, and was dismissed on his undertaking to be more gentle and to avoid drunken company. Seven months later Anneke died; five months thereafter (1617) Frans married Lysbeth Reyniers; nine days later she gave him the first of ten children.104 He has left us an admirable picture of himself and this second wife.105 She lived with him through his remaining forty-seven years, putting up with all his impecuniosity and drunken bouts. There was nothing very attractive about him except that he was a great painter and a jolly soul.
He was already thirty-six when he achieved a major success, The Banquet of the Officers of St. Joris’ Shooting Guild106—the first of the five Doelen pictures that give Hals his rank. The doelen were the headquarters of volunteers who practiced marksmanship, held competitions and social gatherings, and served as communal militia. Occasionally the officers of such guilds would pay an artist to paint their portraits as a group, each individual insisting that his prominence in the picture should be proportioned to his grade in the company and his contribution to the cost. Here, then, are these officers, decked out in their best finery, gathered around a feast, with one of them carrying the colorful standard of the company. Hals earned his fee, for each of these heads is an individual and powerful portrait, each different, each a biography and a masterpiece.
We do not hear of another such assignment till eleven years later, but in the interval he produced pictures that are among the prizes of Dutch art: The Herring Seller107—again a history in a face; The Merry Trio and Junker Ramp and His Girl, both in New York; the famous Laughing Cavalier108—self-confidence incarnate, with all his fortune on his back in ruff and frills and flowered cloak, and a smile almost as subtle as La Gioconda’s. And in this period (1624?) Frans painted his Self-Portrait109—a strong and handsome face, with wistful eyes denying the pride of the fine clothes and folded arms. The man was a bruised shuttlecock between the hunger for perfection and the thirst for drink.
In 1627 came the second Doelen group, another Officers of St. Joris’ Guild110 not so clear and bright as the first; Hals deliberately turned for a time from the easy brilliance of strong colors to the more difficult manipulation of the minor keys—half tones, gray shadows, softer outlines. Another Doelen of that year, St. Adriaen’s Shooting Guild,111 is also in subdued tones. The shooters must have been pleased, for they commissioned Hals to paint them again (1633);112 now the artist recalled his colors and displayed his genius for making every face interesting and unique. In 1639 he painted still another Officers of St. Joris’ Guild,113 but here the individual is lost in the crowd. All in all, these Doelen are among the outstanding group pictures of all time. They illustrate the emergence of the middle class into proud prominence in Dutch history and art.
In his second period (1626–50) Hals painted portraits that cry out for remembrance: The Jolly Toper,114 under a hat large enough to cover a multitude of drinks; The Sand Runner,115 disheveled and ragged and charming; The Gypsy (or La Bohémienne), smiling and bulging in the Louvre; The Jester in Amsterdam; the fanciful Balthazar Coymans in Washington; and, as the climax of this maturity, Hals’s supreme picture, The Regents of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital,116 so like, so unlike, Rembrandt’s Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, painted twenty-one years afterward.
Frans’s incalculable carouses, though they do not seem to have injured his art, had hurt his standing even in a land and a time that took occasional intoxication as an ode to joy. He continued to paint pictures that would have made any artist famous: Hille Bobbe,117 “the witch of Haarlem”; the disenchanting Descartes118—enormous eyebrows, enormous nose, eyes saying “Dubito”; and (painted at the age of eighty) Young Man in a Slouch Hat.119 But meanwhile disasters multiplied. In 1639 Hals’s son Pieter was sent to an insane asylum at municipal expense. In 1641 his wayward eldest daughter, at her mother’s request, was put into a workhouse. By 1650 Frans was destitute. In 1654 the local baker sued him for a debt of two hundred gulden, and attached the painter’s goods. In 1662 the broken old man applied for and received poor relief. Two years later the Haarlem council voted him a yearly pension and an immediate gift of three loads of peat to fire his hearth.
Probably as additional alms he was given, in this year 1664, a commission to paint two pictures: The Regents of the Almshouse and The Women Regents of the Almshouse. The male group shows the unsteady hand of the artist’s eighty-four years; many features are daubed in vaguely. But in the companion piece, the Regentessen, the old skill has surprisingly returned; here are five souls drawn out into their obedient faces, five old women wasted with unwanted tasks, prim and stern with their puritan code, forgetting the joys and frolics of their youth; yet through those grim features somehow shines a timid kindliness, a weary sympathy. These final pictures, last flames of the painter’s fire, now, with the great Doelen canvases, hang in the Frans Hals Museum that Haarlem built on the site of that almshouse.
He died a pauper (1664), but he was given honorable burial in the chancel of St.-Bavon’s in the city whose fame rests upon a long-resisted siege and the works of her greatest son. For two centuries thereafter he was almost forgotten. His pictures sold for pittances, or by auction, or not at all. If historians of art remembered him it was to note the narrowness of his range—no religious pictures, no mythologies, no histories, no landscapes, no nudes; or the apparently careless haste of his method—no preliminary sketches, but rapid daubs and slashes of color that relied on suggestion and the beholder’s memory to fill in details. Today a possibly exaggerated acclaim balances that long neglect, and one generous critic considers Hals “the most brilliant executant of portraits the world has seen.”120 Where time, the safest judge, so vacillates in its judgment, let us be content to admire.