Vincent van Gogh was a competitive painter, always looking closely at the work of other artists for any scrap of knowledge that he could utilise in his own practice. So when he famously claimed that “Frans Hals must have had 27 blacks”, there was a huge compliment hidden within the vinegary bitterness.
Van Gogh’s original comment, an acknowledgement of his countryman’s skill at finding subtle colour shifts in passages where lesser artists would have laid down a blanket of tone, came in a letter sent to his brother Theo on 20 October 1885 in which he also declared Hals as “a colourist among the colourists, a colourist like Veronese, like Rubens, like Delacroix, like Velázquez”.
In another letter sent a week earlier, Van Gogh had first written of his joy at seeing a painting by Hals and named him alongside Rembrandt as one of the true greats. “What particularly struck me when I saw the old Dutch paintings again is that they were usually painted quickly,” added Van Gogh. “These great masters like Hals, Rembrandt… as far as possible just put it straight down – and didn’t come back to it so very much… If it worked, they left it alone.”
Because it is this that is forgotten when one sees a Frans Hals portrait in reproduction. The ruffled collars and silken clothing combine to form the impression of a rather smoothly rendered likeness, yet in fact his visible brushwork was every bit as expressive and daring as Rembrandt – or indeed Claude Monet or Jackson Pollock. Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones spoke gleefully of “the spun threads of free spittle-like white paint and broad smears of silky black” in Hals’s masterpiece, 1624’s The Laughing Cavalier, and yet that description could just as easily apply to one of Pollock’s drip paintings.
This brazen approach to paint application was only truly appreciated more than two centuries after Hals’ death in 1666. In fact, by drawing the admiration of Van Gogh, Monet and more, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Walter Liedtke claimed that “in the second half of the 19th century, Hals was actually the most admired artist in some quarters”, ahead of even Rembrandt.
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