Christopher D.M. Atkins, The Signature Style of Frans Hals: Painting, Subjectivity, and The Market in Early Modernity(Amsterdam Studies in the Dutch Golden Age). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press 2012. 324 pp, 130 col. illus. ISBN 978-90-8964-335-3.
Anna Tummers, Frans Hals: Eye to Eye with Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian. With contributions by Christopher D.M. Atkins, Martin Bijl, Karolien De Clippel, Jonathan Gration, Jasper Hillegers, Sophie Rietveld, Michiel Roscam Abbing and Filip Vermeylen. Cat. exh. Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, March 23 – July 28, 2013. Haarlem: Frans Hals Museum; Rotterdam: nai010 publishers 2013. 160 pp, 173 col. illus. ISBN 978-94-6208-053-9.
It is with great pleasure that I review these two new books on Frans Hals and get to re-visit this remarkable artist once again. Neither of these volumes attempts to replace Seymour Slive’s now classic catalogue raisonné of 1970-74. Rather, they take this now standard work as a given and explore Hals’s unique qualities within Haarlem, and the Netherlands, the nature of Hals’s workshop and his relationship – visual and otherwise – with contemporary artists. Both are thoughtful and insightful contributions to our field and even those most familiar with Hals’s work will be surprised by the new paradigms suggested here.
Christopher Atkins’s thoughtful analysis of Hals’s “signature style” is the more theoretical of the two (although he is also a contributor to the exhibition catalogue), theoretical in the sense that he uses contemporary Dutch art theory and concept of “modernity” to explain the virtuosity we see on the canvas. His descriptions of Hals’s rough (rouw) brushwork incorporate dictionary definitions (in several languages – exploring contemporary terms), theory, history, stories, and biography. We are somehow never alone with these works but accompanied by generations of writers who comment on them or their manner. Atkins is adept at letting us see what others have seen; what painterly effects they may have had in mind in distinguishing Hals from his contemporaries.
Atkins explores the nature of Hals’s workshop and the issue of the numerous versions of the master’s work. I asked myself what new attributions would the author make or how would he sort out all those workshop/style of/versions of paintings? His analysis, based on the writings and rules of the time – assuming artists actually followed them – arrives at some surprising conclusions. He says, for example, that Hals’s style was his brand and that students would try to come as close to it as possible, with the result that one cannot tell one from the other – which was precisely the point! Atkins also suggests that Hals produced variations of his genre paintings (intended for sale on the open market, an activity that he also explores), rather than outright copies, in an attempt to keep the artist’s work more lively and fresh–more Hals-like. Direct copies would, by their very nature, be more stiff.
Of course having spent a good part of my professional life trying to parse these workshop hands, I was at first indignant, then disappointed that Atkins had withdrawn himself from this thorny knot. But he makes a good argument for the broader thinking, and that the workshop’s success and Hals’s was that one often cannot separate one from the other, which of course does not mean we should stop asking or stop looking.
Atkins only weighs in, in a footnote (n. 61, p. 260), that he thinks several hands are seen in the Fisher Children paintings and that some of the better ones are by Hals (that is, unlike Grimm, 1971, who would throw them all out).
Furthermore, Atkins claims that Hals did not actually collaborate with workshop assistants. Since, for the most part, his paintings are of moderate size and quickly executed without drawings, such subordinates would not have been of any help to him (p. 168). Yet there are known cases in which Hals did collaborate (with Willem Buytewech, Pieter Molyn and possibly Claus van Heussen) and Atkins’s discussion of this nubby problem is then dropped to his footnotes (n. 58, p. 260). I would have appreciated seeing Atkins grapple with these questions a bit more head on. In the end, however, I admire Atkins’s attempt to get out of the trap of attributions and explore the bigger picture by putting the unique qualities of Hals in context. I would only add David Levine’s insightful article on Hals’s brushwork and the Dutch language, “Frans Hals and the Vernacular” in The Transformation of Vernacular Expression in Early Modern Arts, ed. Joost Keizer and Todd M. Richardson (Boston: Brill 2012, pp. 180-203, reviewed in this issue), which came out too late for Atkins to use but further supports his analysis.
One would have wanted a more detailed index and close-up views of Hals’s expressive, loaded brushstrokes, details of canvas, underpainting, etc. It is disappointing that the images in Atkins do not fully meet our needs. However, for lavish and large illustrations, with great details, see the Eye to Eye exhibition catalogue.
Like Atkins, Anna Tummers explores the sources of Hals’s rouwbrushwork. She finds them in the freely painted late work of Titian, regarded by Karel van Mander as an appropriate model for the most skilfull painters, as well as in paintings by Tintoretto and Rubens. However, Tummers is careful not to ascribe direct influence to any precursor, admitting in particular that “the extent to which Hals … had Titian in mind is difficult to establish.” (p. 19)
Karolien De Clippel and Filip Vermeylen suggest that the sense of national pride as well as the expertise of art historians divide Dutch from Flemish art; hence, we do not study Rubens and Hals together. Museums collude in this enterprise (perhaps they initiated it) by hanging their work in separate rooms, even entire wings apart. Thus it seems almost revolutionary (in an exhibition – although usual in PowerPoint presentations in a classroom) to place Rubens, Hals, Van Dyck, Jordaens and Rembrandt, artists of roughly the same dates, in the same space – eye to eye. (Atkins too, in Signature Style, makes much of Hals’s use and paraphrasing of the work of his Flemish contemporaries.)
The juxtaposition of these artists in portraiture and genre painting was revelatory. Tummers compares portraits, poses and props by Rubens and Van Dyck from the first decade of the century with those by Hals and Jordaens of ten years later, and Rembrandt’s Trip portraits of c. 1661 with Hals’s Regents of about three years later. De Clippel suggests that Rubens’s dark-skinned Levantine (?) in his Two Studies of a Man (c. 1615) may have been the model used by Hals in his Pekelharing (c. 1628). The latter’s expressive, toothy smile and distinctive posture was, according to the author, later adapted by Van Dyck in his Portrait of François Langlois, c.1632.
Much of the catalogue explores the still fascinating questions of “who got the ideas from whom? And when? And who saw what?” To what extent did these artists “share” (in the larger sense) the same props and even occasionally the same patrons? The wealthy, dashing Jasper Schade, painted by Hals in 1645, is painted again (with a pendant of his wife) in 1654 by Cornelius Johnson van Ceulen, looking as if he aged 20 years.
The original placement of the earlier Schade painting is digitally reconstructed by Tummers and Gration, as is that of the many Civic-Guard and Regents paintings. Thus the paintings are not only seen here within the context of the works by contemporaries but also within the context of the viewers and in many cases, the paintings’ exact placements.
Both Eye to Eye and Signature Style speak to the issue of how “modern-looking” Hals was seen through the centuries. They have made him both fresh and modern once again.
Frima Fox Hofrichter