Frans Hals: The Male Portrait

The Wallace Collection 

Portrait of a man possibly Nicolaes Pietersz Duyst van Voorhout by Frans HalsHandsome, he may not have been, but I bet he was awfully good company; a confident, expansive, successful man-about-town with a quick wit. The man in question – thought to be Nicolaes Pietersz Duyst van Voorhout – a thirty-something brewer from Haarlem, looks down on us with a wry smile, his straw-coloured hair somewhat askew above his shiny cheeks, his grey satin doublet stretched across his tubby middle – both suggesting he wasn’t short of cash – and one hand planted raffishly on a hip. The genius of Frans Hals, the man who painted him around 1636-38, lay in his ability to provide us, not just with a striking portrait of a man, but to make us feel, nearly 400 years later, that we really are in his imposing presence.

Nicolaes Pietersz Duyst van Voorhout stands in good company. Around him lie twelve more portraits of men painted by Hals, gathered together by the Wallace Collection, and demonstrating why he is now recognised as one of the great virtuosos of the Dutch Golden Age. Well spaced-out to give us plenty of room to admire each one, and assembled around the room like they’re ready for dinner, they present the great and the good of Haarlem, all prosperous looking men, well able to afford the fees of the foremost painter of the city, several in the flush of youth, others older and in their prime.

Frans Hals: Isaac Abrahamsz Massa 1626 Bequest of Frank P Wood 1955 ©Art Gallery of OntarioIn lesser hands, they could have been strangers who could arouse little curiosity, but Hals fires them with the flame of life and captures, seemingly in a fleeting moment, the spirit of man himself: Pieter van den Broecke, the no-nonsense, admiral, looking rather weather-beaten after years at sea; Isaac Abrahamsz Massa, the merchant and diplomat, contentedly leaning over the back of his chair, looking like he’s about to engage Hals in conversation. These are the living, breathing men of Haarlem, who made the city great, their energy and intelligence matched and captured by Hals’s own formidable skill and vigour. Then there’s the stunner from the Wallace Collection itself, The Laughing Cavalier, not actually laughing, but smirking and looking very pleased with himself. With his curly hair, ruddy cheeks, slick moustache, and an outfit to die for – all gold embroidery and lace – rendered by Hals with breathtaking perfection, he’s a picture of richness in every respect: in looks, in health, in self-assurance, in gorgeous finery. 

Frans Hals: The Laughing Cavalier 1624 © Trustees of the Wallace Collection LondonStarting with a sombre and thoughtful Portrait of a Man who is holding a skull, painted around 1610-14, the portraits well show just how far Hals’s style evolved during his long life. By the end, it was free-flowing but still capturing, in a bolder way, the essence of the man before him. It was this transition though, that led to a long hiatus in his reputation. Born around 1582 in Antwerp, Hals moved several years later with his parents to Haarlem, which was becoming a booming commercial and artistic centre. After gaining a reputation early as a portraitist, painting the elite of the city, Hals remained in Haarlem, dying there in 1666. Yet after his death, his work slipped out of sight, prompted by a disdain for his later style, which was considered somewhat rough and ready. It wasn’t until his worth was recognised later by the likes of Manet and van Gogh, that his star rose again. When the 4th Marquess of Hertford, (founder of the Wallace Collection) bought The Laughing Cavalier, in 1865 in Paris in a spectacular bidding contest at auction, paying way over the estimate, that people woke up to Hals again. 

Since Hals was out of fashion for so long, the names of his subjects prompted by that distain – including the Cavalier – were often forgotten. The identity of one though, Francois Wouters, a portrait belonging to the National Galleries of Scotland, was cleverly worked out by a keen-eyed visitor only some years ago. If only paintings could talk. Some of these men must surely have known each other and here they are, reunited, by virtue of a man whose work was resurrected to dazzle us again. Don’t miss them.

More information

Frans Hals: The Male Portrait
22 September – 30 January 2022

The Wallace Collection
Hertford House
Manchester Square
London W1U 3BN

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Diana Bentley

Freelance travel writer & broadcaster

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