Centuries after being painted, a portrait by Frans Hals can still feel as fresh and engaging as it did upon reveal. Revamping a long tradition of stiff and stately representation, Hals captured the complexity of every person he painted with a sense of intimacy and immediacy not previously seen in conventional portraiture. During the Dutch Golden Age, Hals became the most in-demand portrait artist in Haarlem, the artistic center of the 17th-century Dutch Republic.
Who Was Frans Hals?
Known for his unusually loose brushwork and lively, laid-back portraiture, Frans Hals’ decades-long career and enduring artistic innovations helped transform a tired tradition into one of the most important Dutch contributions to all of art history. Haarlem-based portrait painter Frans Hals (1582-1666) was among the most famous artists in the Dutch Republic during his lifetime—not just for his mastery of portraiture, but for his total transformation of the genre. During the Dutch Golden Age, most professional artists specialized in a particular category of art, from floral still life to maritime landscape.
From the start of his career, Hals set himself apart as an innovative and intuitive portraitist. Painting people from every facet of society, Hals breathed life into every portrait. His remarkable talent for conveying the individual characteristics, personalities, and emotions of every subject captivated viewers in ways that more restrained portraits of the past could not.
Haarlem: A 17th-Century Art Center
Frans Hals spent his entire career in the city of Haarlem. Towards the end of the 16th century, when Hals was getting his start as a painter, unprecedented economic and political growth in the Dutch Republic led to the start of its century-long Golden Age, turning Haarlem into a cosmopolitan artistic hub. Haarlem’s open market, wealth distribution, and Protestant majority created a new kind of demand for art—and ample professional opportunities for artists like Hals. Unlike much of Europe, church and government commissions for grandiose spiritual and historical paintings were no longer the norm. Instead, an exciting new art market, driven by the interests and newfound wealth of ordinary civilians, emerged.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
In Haarlem and throughout the Dutch Republic, a wide variety of portraits, still lifes, landscapes, and contemporary genre scenes were purchased by middle and upper-class citizens. This new clientele wanted small-scale artworks that were suitable to be displayed in their homes. They were most interested in subject matter that was relevant to their everyday lives—a portrait could assert status and commemorate legacy, a still life painting could showcase taste and wealth, and a genre scene could reflect contemporary life and even subtly express one’s moral code. Within this unique cultural and economic climate, and thanks to Haarlem’s dynamic art market, artists like Frans Hals enjoyed both commercial success and the freedom to experiment.
How Frans Hals Became a Famous Portraitist
Although Frans Hals lived and worked in Haarlem for his entire decades-long career, he was technically an immigrant to the northern territories of the Dutch Republic. Hals was born in approximately 1582 in Antwerp, a city in the Spanish Netherlands at the time. Due to the fall of Antwerp in the 1580s, during which Protestant Dutch revolutionaries surrendered to Catholic Spanish forces, Protestant residents were forced to leave the city. Hals’ parents were among many mercantile-class Protestants who fled north to the new Dutch Republic and settled in Haarlem, where Hals remained for the rest of his life. Few additional details are otherwise known about Hals’ upbringing in Haarlem until he began an artist’s apprenticeship there as a young adult.
Burgeoning Dutch artists traditionally studied under the tutelage of a master painter before embarking on their own careers. In Haarlem, Frans Hals studied under the Flemish artist Karel van Mander, who painted in the Mannerist style. Hals, however, largely ignored the ultra-stylized aesthetic of Mannerism in favor of the naturalistic approach favored by Dutch Golden Age artists.
At the start of his career, Hals earned a living as an art restorer for the town council. His acceptance into the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke, an exclusive association of artists and art merchants, secured his reputation and gave him greater access to patrons and other professional opportunities. Soon, Hals secured his first major portrait commission from Haarlem’s St. George Militia Company. The resulting painting—an ambitious and dynamic group portrait featuring the company’s members enjoying a banquet—helped lay the foundation for Frans Hals’ career as Haarlem’s most popular portrait artist.
An Innovative Approach to Painting and Portraiture
Soon, wealthy patrons flocked to Hals’ studio in Haarlem to commission an individual, marriage, or group portrait. Most artists during the Dutch Golden Age occasionally relocated their studios to accommodate their clients, but Hals was popular enough that clients always traveled to him. In addition to accepting commissions from Haarlem’s elite, Hals painted portraits for the open market featuring lower-status locals, including children, musicians, fishermen, and drunkards.
With every subject, Hals dared to depart from conventional portraiture, rejecting idealization, formality, and stillness in favor of naturalism, personality, and movement. Hals seemingly captured his subjects in action, posed casually and looking cheerfully toward the viewer—both highly unusual elements of portraiture at the time. Other artists quickly caught onto the popularity of Hals’ down-to-earth approach. They, too, attempted to render their subjects with a higher degree of physical and psychological vitality previously unseen in Dutch portraiture.
Frans Hals’ ability to convincingly capture the essence of his subjects wasn’t his only innovation in the field of professional portraiture. With visibly large and gestural brushstrokes, Hals’ work stood out from—and, in some cases, directly inspired—the work of his contemporaries. In the 17th century, loose brushwork was typically considered a flaw in painting rather than an aesthetic choice. But Hals intentionally mastered the art of loose, lively brushwork in his portraits. He successfully achieved bold contrast, dynamic light and shadow, naturalistic modeling, and the illusion of motion with just a few confident strokes of his paintbrush. As his career progressed, Frans Hals’ brushstrokes grew increasingly looser, suggesting confidence in his technical prowess, and indicating his focus on the overall aesthetic effect of his technique.
Group Portraiture By Frans Hals
During the Dutch Golden Age, group portraiture emerged as a culturally significant genre of painting all its own, and its development was led by Frans Hals. A growing population of wealthy civic organizations, guilds, and social groups sought to immortalize their collective status and achievements by commissioning group portraits from leading artists. Hals skillfully met the challenge of depicting multiple individuals in a single composition.
Instead of painting a stoic row of interchangeable faces, made relevant only by the context of the painting, Hals accurately conveyed each person’s unique physical likeness and personality. With a distinct facial expression and dynamic body language, each member of a group depicted by Hals is an active participant in an actively unfolding moment. His innovations inspired other artists of group portraits, including his Amsterdam-based contemporary Rembrandt, and secured him several prestigious group portrait commissions throughout his career.
50 Years of Dutch Golden Age Portraits
Compared to other artists of the Dutch Golden Age, Frans Hals started his career relatively late at 28 years old. But Hals continued painting professionally, including commissioned portraits, up until his death at age 84. Hals was in high demand for most of his career, but he worked long enough for his paintings to fall out of style towards the end of his life. Despite his fame and lifelong commercial success, Hals experienced several periods of financial instability and had a reputation for drinking excessively and falling into debt. After his death, Hals’ loose painting style began to be associated with his “loose” way of life. Until halfway through the 19th century, Frans Hals—and his immense impact on Dutch Golden Age art—was largely ignored.
How Frans Hals Influenced Impressionism
The avant-garde artists of the early modern era—including Édouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, and Claude Monet—rediscovered Frans Hals in the mid-1800s. These artists were particularly struck by the free-flowing, audaciously visible brushstrokes of Hals’ work. Compared to the idealized classicism and carefully composed painting style favored by the 19th-century French art establishment, Hals offered an alternative approach better suited for the modern world: expressive brushstrokes that brought everyday moments to life. Vincent van Gogh later wrote, “What a joy it is to see Frans Hals like that—how very different it is from the paintings…where everything has been carefully smoothed out in the same way.”
Frans Hals’ surprising surge in popularity 200 years after his death not only influenced Impressionism and the subsequent advent of Modernism. It rightfully re-established Hals as a leading figure in the history of Dutch Golden Age art. While many historical portraits tend to feel like products of their time, paintings by Frans Hals continue to impress and inspire artists and viewers alike.