Much like the renowned artist’s enigmatic life, the journey of this magnificent Frans Hals painting contains riveting twists and turns.
Portrait of a Gentleman by Frans Hals. Circa 1630. M.S. Rau.
Frans Hals, the illustrious Dutch Golden Age painter, stands as a paragon of artistic virtuosity, celebrated for his unparalleled ability to capture the essence of his subjects. His work not only influenced his contemporaries but also reverberates through the halls of the greatest artists in art history, an indisputable testament to his genius. Revered by art connoisseurs, collectors and museums alike, the mention of an original Frans Hals painting is sure to evoke a sense of awe and admiration among art enthusiasts and casual observers alike.
Among the many masterpieces from Hals' oeuvre, Portrait of a Gentleman found its place in the private collection of Jacques Goudstikker, the preeminent Old Master collector of the 20th century. Unfortunately, in 1940, the invasion of the Netherlands by the Nazi army forced Goudstikker to leave behind his extensive collection, which included over 1200 priceless Old Master works of art. In a tragic turn of events, Nazi soldiers looted his entire collection, and this painting, along with many others, was consigned to obscurity for decades.
Remarkably, in 2006, the long-lost painting was rediscovered, offering a new chapter in its intriguing history. The composition serves not only as a breathtaking example of Hals' masterful portraiture but also as an emblem of artistic ingenuity, a potent symbol of hope and a testament to the resilience of humanity in the face of adversity. Read on to discover the story of the painting's recovery, a triumphant accomplishment for the art world.
Portrait of the Artist:
Frans Hals Self Portrait. Circa 1650. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source.
Frans Hals is widely regarded as one of the most important Dutch Golden Age painters alongside Rembrandt and Vermeer. His virtuosic portraits can be found in the most prestigious museums around the world, including the Rijksmuseum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and his namesake museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands. Hals' works are instantly recognizable and renowned for his mastery in oil painting and his overwhelming contributions to the genre of portraiture. Hals' painterly brushwork and rendering of surface and texture have earned him a preeminent place in the canon of art history.
He was based in Haarlem and occasionally traveled to Amsterdam for commissions, though he preferred to stay in his hometown, where he primarily captured the city's elite and civic guardsmen. Hals' paintings showcase his unique ability to reveal the intimate details of a sitter's personality by accurately capturing the anatomical elements of a face. Scholars today consider Hals ahead of his time and note the groundbreaking sensibility of modernity in his 17th-century works. Hals' painterly brushwork and rendering of surface and texture have earned him a preeminent place in the canon of art history. Among the countless artists inspired by his oeuvre, both Edouard Manet and Vincent Van Gogh have produced artworks that emulate Hal's use of color in his emotionally evocative portraits.
Education and Career:
In his youth, Hals studied under another Flemish émigré, Karel van Mander (1548-1606), and at the age of 27, he became a member of the city's Guild of Saint Luke. The earliest known works by Hals are impressive formal portraits he produced between 1612 and 1614, when he was about thirty years old. His artistic breakthrough came in 1616, with the life-size group portrait entitled The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company, which captured a militia in which Hals himself served. This triumph brought Hals the gaze of Haarlem's most prestigious dignitaries and merchants, a clientele that would request Hals' work for the rest of his life.
Although Hals' work was in demand throughout his life, he experienced financial difficulties. His family's large size coupled with the reality that no Dutch portraitists were paid handsomely resulted in continuous debt-related incidents throughout his lifetime. To make ends meet, in addition to painting, he worked as an art dealer and restorer.
As an artist, Hals followed his own innovative techniques, deviating from the Mannerist styles of his teachers, including van Mander. Hals consistently explored revolutionary uses of light. He was fond of daylight and often used a silvery glow, which directly contrasted Rembrandt's contrasts of low light, creating the gloomy effect for which he is known. Beloved by Haarlem's most distinguished citizens both during and after his lifetime, Hals undeniably benefited from a long career that enabled him to grow and develop his genius, a fortune few artists of his time would receive.
During the Dutch Golden Age, major breakthroughs in the arts and sciences were facilitated by Dutch control of the sea, the founding of the Dutch Republic, and increased wealth from burgeoning commerce through the Dutch East India Company. In this period, portrait artists enjoyed steady patronage as families sought to immortalize themselves in paint. Dutch families of the time wished to live moral, pious lives that reflected their Calvinistic modesty and to preserve the legacies of their families by keeping galleries of familial portraits.
However, in a Post-Reformation Calvinist society, Dutch elites faced a delicate balance between displaying the bountiful fruits of the Dutch East India Company's global prowess through their attire while still appearing moral and restrained. Although 17th-century artists often portrayed garments that appeared reserved, the superb quality of their dark silks, cotton and linens would have been evident to contemporary viewers, as would the costly lace in collars, cuffs and bonnets. The dichotomy of perceived restraint and underlying wealth permeates explorations of Dutch values and sensibilities during the Golden Age. Thus, virtuosic painters like Frans Hals toed this fine line to both conceal and highlight their sitter's "Embarrassment of Riches."
Portrait of a Gentleman:
Jacques Goudstikker, art collector. 1938. Source.
The Portrait of a Gentleman, painted around 1630, is an excellent example of Frans Hals’ celebrated work. Experts, including former and current chief curators of the Frans Hals Museum, have verified the composition as an authentic painting by the artist’s hand. The subject, a calm and austere man, is depicted holding a quill, which suggests he may have been a writer or calligrapher. Hals' signature bold brushwork captures the sitter's personality, providing a unique and compelling portrait.
Scholars believe that this painting is almost certainly a portrait of French calligrapher and schoolmaster Theodore Blevet. This is based on the similarity of the man's face to an engraving by Theodor Matham after a lost 1640 portrait by Hals. Hals' realistic and precise rendering of the sitter's bone structure, glint of the eye, slight grin and the shape of his hand captures the man's likeness and personality.
Misidentification and Correction
After being reclaimed from Nazi possession, the painting remained in the custody of the Dutch government, out of sight in the national holdings storerooms, for over 60 years. In 2006, the painting was restituted to the heirs of Goudstikker. However, they, unfortunately, did not clean the painting or investigate its value. The following year, the painting was sold at auction as a minor work by an anonymous follower of Frans Hals. It was later discovered that this was a profound misjudgment. Following a thorough cleaning that removed old, darkened varnish and overpaint, the painting's true splendor was revealed. The correct attribution to Hals was verified by esteemed Dutch art historian Pieter Biesboer and Dr. Norbert Middelkoop, current curator of Old Masters at the Frans Hals Museum, and it will be reflected in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné by renowned Hals scholar Claus Grimm.
Where is the painting today?
Now residing in a private collection, Portrait of a Gentleman
remains an incredible discovery of the likes that many collections could only dream of. That a painting lost to the ravages of war remained hidden under layers of storage and dirt for decades is a true wonder. This remarkable painting is fully restored, correctly attributed and living the new life it deserves.