Review, Frans Hals Exhibition, National Gallery by James Ellis 

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

As I gaze upon The Lute Player by Frans Hals (1582-1666), I smirk at at the likeness between myself and the model, who remains a mystery to this day. A friend a few years back showed me the resemblance during our performance of a Shakespeare play. It seemed to me with the longer hair and the costume triggered this semblance of connection. It was fun to pose and try to capture the facial features of someone long dead. I do plan to go back and make myself look even more like the cheeky fella.

Photo credit: James Ellis

Getting that out of the way, this Frans Hals exhibit was simply wonderful. Often overshadowed by the eternal Rembrandt, a fellow Dutch master, time and time avian this show proves the brilliance of Hals. Lovers of more unconventional paintings of the period will stew over this highly emotive and relatable portraits. Staggering for a young man to simply strike a pose that only a bachelor could make of the time. The Portrait of Catharina Hooft and her Nurse is a swell example. Catharina the child, dressed in the most luxurious dress of the era and the nurse who still gets a loving depiction here. It’s one of many masterpieces you’ll see in this gallery.

The aforementioned Lute Player might just be his best, the facial expression and light are heaven sent. The similar Merry Lute Player, the figure gets a highly detailed face that I found myself drawn into. His larger commissions would wow and put light upon the black servants and wriggling children, whom Hals again gives much respect. It’s the elder looking Dutchman in their famous black hoods and massive hats that appear ludicrous in nature. Either looking defeated or fed up, I found it hard not to laugh in this sea of black fabric, white faces and a lone, shocking red-orange stocking of one gentleman.

The Portrait of Jasper Schade that is devilishly detailed and impeccably crafted, later work would show Hals commitment to more wild brush work, near impressionistic in style, through still of its time. Jasper’s proud stance and affirmed glance is the cock-sure male we never lost in society, though its hard not to marvel at his drip (clothes for the older readers out there). A tiny room with miniatures are another joy, children and smaller ideas haunt the space.  A Young Man Holding a Skull is another famous flutter, though the blurb next to the painting says it is not likely to be a depiction of Hamlet, looking at the timeline, I dare say it might be.

A disappointment came when the gift shop was not selling postcards of Hals’ iconic work as singles, but in multi pack. What surprised me the most was the smallness of the exhibition. I did expect it to be a few rooms bigger, though this should not sway anyone to see this genius of the candid, polished portrait.

It runs at the National Gallery till 21st Jan 2024. 

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