Steven Nadler’s latest book is a biography of Frans Hals. This format is increasingly rare. As such, it is worth contemplating the role of biographies, and indeed biography, in early modern studies. Following Karel van Mander’s and Arnold Houbraken’s compendiums of lives, volumes devoted to individual artists fill our libraries. That said, most of these are monographs devoted to artists’ creations. A section of the book might be dedicated to the artist’s life or biographic facts and details may be marshalled to frame or support art historical interpretations. More recently, many academic publishers favor thematic studies and eschew many forms of monographs while online resources like those of the RKD provide quick access to biographical data. With this history and recent trends in mind, it is inherently refreshing to encounter a book-length account of an individual artist’s life.
Nadler’s biography is deeply rooted in the documents transcribed and translated by Irene van Thiel-Stroman in the 1989 exhibition catalogue devoted to Hals that remains the best single volume devoted to the artist. These documents remain fundamental to the study of Hals and are an exemplar of thorough archival research. Nadler draws upon these documents extensively, weaves them together, and contextualizes them with a rich array of material about the city of Haarlem, politics and religion in the Dutch Republic, and the realities of life in early modernity all written in engaging and evocative prose. For those who know the Hals documents they may feel like a character in a science fiction movie who experiences binary code transform into a three-dimensional image of the world.
For specialists, much of the value of Nadler’s biography is in the way Nadler situates the long-known facts of Hals’s existence within the wider world of the early modern Low Countries. Building on his earlier book, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter, Nadler effectively establishes Hals’s network of connections and their implications for his work. Nadler is particularly adept at illuminating the details of the lives of Hals’s sitters and how they connect to the ebbs and flows of religious power struggles, inside and outside the Dutch Republic. The resulting image is one of a flexible artist willing to work for individuals of different faiths. At the same time, Nadler casts Hals as an artist who had to navigate a complex, and frequently shifting, religious environment in a never-ending search for commissions and sales.
Nadler’s illumination of Hals’s network is particularly useful in the various passages related to the painter’s family. Nadler expertly gathers information about Hals’s grandparents, parents, and their relations in Antwerp before the young Hals relocated to Haarlem by 1591. His father Franchois was a cloth cutter (droogscheerder) who made decorative patterns in woven materials and Nadler convincingly argues that Franchois moved his family to Haarlem to follow the booming textile industry in the city. Performing the same work in Antwerp and Haarlem, Franchois was a skilled craftsman, surely with considerable dexterity. One wonders if his father’s occupation might have had some influence on Hals’s close attention to cloth materials early in his career. Readers do not find much new information about Hals’s brother Dirck, but there is tantalizing documentation related to Hals’s other brother, Joost. Though no known works have been identified, Joost was a registered painter, though not a master, with the guild. As Nadler sketches, several of Hals’s sons also entered the painting industry: Jan, Harmen, Reynier, Frans II, Nicolaes. His daughter Adriaentje married the painter Pieter van Roestraten. But, no new information on how they might have studied with and potentially worked for their father comes to light.
Hals fathered fifteen children in total. Even with five of the children dying young, Nadler persistently argues for the financial and psychological strain Hals must have encountered caring for his family. Indeed, Hals needed to pay for his son Pieter’s mental disability care even as an adult. Hals also endured costs for the incarceration of his daughter Sara. Nadler links Hals’s family situation to the innumerable documents detailing Hals’s various debts and issues with creditors. In short, we encounter an artist who struggled to achieve financial stability. In the process, Nadler raises important questions about Hals’s financial success. He establishes how some of Hals’s contemporaries in Haarlem succeeded financially. Pieter de Grebber, for example, had considerable capital and owned multiple houses while Hals was a renter his entire life.
Unfortunately, Nadler’s book offers no new information on the mysteries of Hals’s early life and career. The second edition of the Schilderboek published in 1618 identifies Hals as among the painters who trained with Van Mander. Van Mander died in 1606, but Hals does not appear as a registered in master in the Guild of St. Luke in Haarlem until 1610 when he was nearly thirty years old. For now we are left to wonder what Hals was doing in these formative years.
As a historian, Nadler understandably relies heavily on art historians and art historical scholarship. Taking a balanced approach that acknowledges areas of dispute, Nadler successfully navigates through the various complexities of attributions and dating. Occasionally, Nadler accepts or rejects the identification of sitters, though. For example, Nadler follows Pieter Biesboer in identifying the sitter for the Laughing Cavalier as Tieleman Roosterman although Seymour Slive and Lelia Packer have not endorsed this identification.
Overall, Nadler’s book is an informative volume crafted in engaging prose. As a biography, it emphasizes Hals’s personhood, and helps readers consider how he navigated his world as an individual. It will be interesting to see if other scholars follow this path and offer biographies of other early modern artists.
Christopher D.M. Atkins
Van Otterloo-Weatherbie Director
Center for Netherlandish Art
 Irene van Thiel-Stroman, “The Frans Hals Documents: Written and Printed Sources, 1582-1679.” In Frans Hals, edited by Seymour Slive, 1989, 31-414.
 Steven Nadler, The Priest, The Poet, and The Painter: a Portrait of Descartes. University of Chicago Press, 2015.
 Pieter Biesboer, “De Laughing Cavalier van Frans Hals. Een Mogelijke Identificatie.” In Face Book: Studies on Dutch and Flemish Portraiture of the 16th-18th Centuries. Rudolf E. O. Ekkart, ed., 133-140. Leiden: Primavera Pers, 2012; Seymour Slive, Frans Hals, Phaidon, 2014; and Lelia Packer and Ashok Roy. Frans Hals: The Male Portrait. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2021. Mentioned and Reproduced: P. 20-22, cat. no. 8.