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Frans Hals painted portraits;
nothing nothing nothing but that.
But it is worth as much as Dante’s
Paradise and the Michelangelos
and Raphaels and even the Greeks.

Vincent Van Gogh

Begins the Credit Suisse exhibition on Frans Hals at the National Gallery. 

Worthy praise from van Gogh. 

Hals was one of the most sought-after portraitists of his time. He was gifted at capturing his sitters in a moment of action, smiling or laughing. In fact, art collectors often covered up the signatures of other artists, such as Judith Leyster, and replaced it with Hals’ to make more money from them. 

It seems to me there are two main portrait types from Hals: 

  • The static, upper class, painted with delicate details, and often posed with a fist resting on their hip and a pompous expression on their face; and
  • The active, everyday man, painted with wilder brushstrokes, caught laughing at whatever they’re participating in. 

What’s consistent between the two types is the exquisite detail. 

In celebration of the Credit Suisse exhibition on Frans Hals at the National Gallery, I broke down Hals’ Laughing Cavalier in my November blogpost. 

In the comments, I found this: 

The Laughing Cavalier looks much better in detail. I wonder if @nationalgallery will take the cue? If they cut the original into a few dozen of mini-paintings, it would make a blockbuster exhibition. Then, if they turned the exhibit into a worldwide touring event, they could get even more bang for their bucks.


I was torn between amusement and shock – I struggle with the idea of predella panels being separated, let alone cutting up a painting! – but the comment hovered in the back of mind the entire time I was in the exhibition. 

Look here at the National Gallery’s own Portrait of a Woman, c. 1635, believed to be Maria Larp. As a whole, this group of portraits I count as static, upper class portraits, all seem to look alike. But move in closer, home in on the details, and you’ll see true artistry. 

She sits stiff and upright, her hand resting over her abdomen, drawing attention to the extravagant embroidery on her gown, the delicate lace at her wrist, and the details of the folds on her ruff. She seems awkward despite the slight touch of animal on her face, the slight quirk of her lips, the rosiness of her cheeks and the shine in her eye. 

Now let us look at this Portrait of Pieter (?) Verdonck, c. 1627, on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland. 

The brush strokes here are less subtle. Wilder. One that is reflected in the movement of his hair. There is an emotion deep set in the sheen across Verdonck’s eyes, a story in the lines of age across his face. A gentility in the strands of hair in his beard and moustache that are kissed by light. 

Verdonck was, in life, considered aggressive and argumentative. Step back from the details and you’ll see Hals has given him a jaw to hold, wielding it as if we, the viewer, have just caught him about to use it against someone. Now these brush strokes seem to reflect something else – his personality. 

And finally, the Laughing Boy with a Wine Glass, c. 1630, on loan from the State Museum Schwerin in Germany. 

Another piece with wilder brush strokes. The collar has fewer details, the hands a blur of colour. Even the reflection on the glass and the jug in his right hand in this tondo are simply impressions rather than the fine detail of his Portrait of a Woman.  

This belongs to the tronie genre, not really intended as portraits but as a study of expression. It is not on the details we are meant to focus, but what is created through the freedom the painter is given. 

Hals’ detail is, by far, the best part of this exhibition, but cast another look at the images you don’t feel immediately beautiful. What are the brushstrokes meant to convey? You may be missing something extraordinary if you don’t. 

The National Gallery, the Rijksmuseum, the Gemäldegalerie, and the Frans Hals Museum have joined together to put on a truly incredible exhibition. The first of its kind in 30 years, it’s put together some of Hals’ best-known paintings – including the Laughing Cavalier which is on its first ever loan from the Wallace Collection – with some lesser-known pieces; large group portraits; smaller, more intimate pieces; marriage portraits; and genre scenes. There really is something for everyone. 

For more information, to book your ticket to the exhibition, and to watch an incredible short on how the discovery of a monster and skull hidden beneath one particular portrait helped solve a big mystery, click here

For my breakdown of the Laughing Cavalier (or the [Not]Laughing [Non]Cavalier as I’ve named the post), click here.

To join me at the Van Gogh and Hals event run by the National Gallery, click here.

And to purchase the brilliant Rijksmuseum and National Gallery written exhibition catalogue, which truly is an incredible addition to your collection, click here

The Credit Suisse Exhibition on Frans Hals will remain at the National Gallery, London, until 21st January 2024. Check it out, then get in touch and let me know what you think!

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