An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 141

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 9, 2021 - Issue 141

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The town of Haarlem in The Netherlands is the home to the Frans Hals Museum, a museum I visited while on a two day visit after Amsterdam and Noordvijk (a beach town southwest of Amsterdam). Like all of 17th century Holland (and earlier) it is enormously picturesque with the typical baroque architecture that you see in other Dutch cities of the time period--brick with a central pediment that is rounded or V-shaped. And, of course, there are canals and a river. The Frans Hals Museum is so named because it has a large group of Hals paintings, but there are also plenty of other paintings to look at as well, many going back to the 16th century, the century I ignored while I visited the Rijksmuseum. And in ignoring those pre-seventeenth century paintings, I missed seeing the Dutch era most associated with religious painting which, according the information posted on the wall of the gallery, was in line with similar works done in Italy. I don't qualify as a connoisseur of devotional works of art wherever they are painted, although they are interesting for their style known as mannerism. Mannerism in painting is more about creating a moment--ignoring the precepts of proportion and symmetry to (hopefully) work towards greater meaning. Interestingly, mannerism in furniture describes nativist decoration, but both mannerism in painting and furniture led into the baroque era which emphasized symmetry and a regularity of the decorative vocabulary.

The Frans Hals Museum, however, is ultimately centered on the room of Hals paintings of Civic Guardsmen. The Eighty Years' War between Spain and The Netherlands (1568-1648) was about independence for the northern states of Holland who chafed at being part of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholicism that was an essential element of the Empire. Northern Europe and Holland in particular were the home of numerous sects of Protestantism, and Catholic rule, despite the mannerist paintings in the aforementioned paragraph which were largely religious in nature, was not appreciated. The Eighty Years' War, which was actually interrupted by a peace of twelve years from 1609-21, was less a war and more a series of conquests for both sides--a war of attrition which had less to do with the loss of life and more to do with who could endure. Various cities around Holland would declare independence and then elect civic guards and this is what Hals most famous paintings are about. Hals painted the heads of two of the Haarlem Civic Guards militias and they are singular in nature. What is most evident, in my opinion, is the demeanor of the men in the group, the earliest group he painted being rather stiff and the last emanating utter conviviality. It is a interesting progression and one that Hals figured out over the twenty years in which these portraits were done. (He also did one of the Civic Guards of Amsterdam which he never finished, but which was finished by another artist.)

This is not the sole reason for Hals's fame as he also painted portraits of street people--he was an artist of the people, always expanding his range rather than sticking to what he knew. But Hals's style is also of interest. It is what artists call "painterly", not overly finished, the kind of painting that when you get close to it looks more and more unfinished. Distance makes the painting seem finished. I can only wonder if Camille Pissarro ever saw Hals's paintings as Pissarro wanted to work back to the painterly that Hals is noted for. Pissarro also encouraged his protoge, Paul Cezanne, to do the same. And it was their loosening up along with Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec's work that were the seeds of Impressionism. I have admiration for Hals's work as I think he pushed boundaries and that is what any artist can hope to be remembered for whether or not their work is considered valuable or museum worthy. The Frans Hals Museum (there is a second, modern Frans Hals Museum that I did not visit) celebrates his worthiness and I am glad I was able to see it.