In Review

Frans Hals: The Male Portrait - what the critics are saying

Is new Wallace Collection show simply ‘pale, stale and male’ or an ‘exhilarating’ testament to a ‘dazzlingly bold’ artist?

You’ve got to admire the gumption of the curators at London’s Wallace Collection, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. At a moment when “museums and galleries are obsessed with diversity”, they have opened a show that “couldn’t be more pale, stale or male if it tried”.

Frans Hals (c.1582-1666), was a Dutch Golden Age portraitist renowned for his likenesses of “rich and powerful men”, and best known for the Wallace’s “beloved” The Laughing Cavalier (1624) – that “primped and perfumed dandy”, with his “buoyant waxed moustache” and “smirking aura”.

Yet however unfashionable the artist’s subject matter may now seem, Hals was a true pioneer who “revolutionised” portraiture, depicting his sitters with “swashbuckling brushwork”, and giving them an “immediate, sparky and natural” quality previously unknown in European painting.

From his death until the 19th century, however, he was “baselessly written off as a feckless alcoholic” – chiefly on account of the “boisterous” poses struck by his sitters. It was only in the 19th century that he was rediscovered by the impressionists and their successors – van Gogh was a particular fan – who hailed him as “a harbinger of modern art”. As the show proves, they were quite right. Bringing together around a dozen portraits, this “exhilarating” exhibition is a magnificent testament to a “dazzlingly bold” artist.

“It’s like taking your place for dinner at a gentlemen's club,” said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. Hals spent almost his entire life in the Dutch city of Haarlem, where the prosperous local elites were composed of “burgomasters, minor noblemen and wealthier brewers and merchants”, many of whom sought his services as a portrait artist.

What’s astonishing is quite how unflattering so many of these extraordinary likenesses are: in Hals’s hands, the cloth merchant Tieleman Roosterman looks “unbearably arrogant”, his “puffy eyes” staring down at us past his “bulbous nose”. His 1660 portrait of an unknown man presents its subject as a ruddy-faced “dissolute”; you can “all but smell the sour wine on his hiccups”. Even the famous Laughing Cavalier has an air of smugness to him, his “self-confident come-hither gaze” radiating insincere charm.

The subject may not have changed, but Hals certainly developed as an artist. The show begins with Portrait of a Man, a work from 1610 that clearly “harks back to Holbein”, but it ends with that 1660 portrait, so “loosely and lusciously rendered that it looks forward to Manet”.

Grayson Perry and Dr Xavier Bray, director of London’s Wallace Collection

Grayson Perry and Dr Xavier Bray, director of London’s Wallace Collection

Billy Ward

We encounter some “terrifically vivacious” characters in this “splendid” exhibition, said Melanie McDonagh in the London Evening Standard. Pieter van den Broecke, for instance, a Dutch East India Company admiral, is a “cheerful, weather-beaten” figure with “unkempt” hair. The curators provide fascinating biographical details: he participated in the slave trade but freed two women with whom he had a child each; he also introduced the coffee plant to Europe.

There’s a “remarkable range of expressions and types” on display here, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. Each portrait – the brewer with a beer belly, the merchant leaning over the back of a chair–feels “like a separate event”. It adds up to a “riveting” show.

Wallace Collection, London W1 (wallacecollection.org). Until 30 January 2022

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