Photo by Niels van Kampenhout
What was the secret of the famous Dutch Masters? To find out I travel from Amsterdam to Haarlem, home of one of the greatest Dutch Golden Age painters: Frans Hals.
In Haarlem, former town of Frans Hals, the water penetrates to the very heart of the city. I cross the Nieuwe Gracht (New Canal) on my walk from the wonderful Art Nouveau station to its center on the bank of the River Spaarne.
Narrow streets end with a glimpse of the masts and funnels of small working boats. A cluster of small buildings clings to each side of the Grote Kerk (Great Church), medieval in their appearance. The church has a soaring whitewashed interior, an ornate organ played by Mozart when he was ten, and Frans Hals’ tomb.
In the nearby Frans Hals Museum, a detailed painting of the church and nearby market by Frans Hals’ pupil Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde dates to 1692 and brings the past vividly into the present. Apart from the odd clothes, and the absence of cars and bicycles, little seems to have changed in nearly four centuries.
Berckheyde was born and died in Haarlem and may have been a pupil of Hals. Both lived during the Dutch Golden Age, when Haarlem was wealthy from textiles, shipyards and beer breweries.
“This wealth helped create an environment where at least 100,000 paintings were produced in Haarlem between 1605 and 1635 alone,” says art historian Marie Hoedemaker. “Frans Hals came to the city as a child and, in a career lasting more than half a century, rarely left it.”
Perhaps the most poignant painting in the museum is the Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House, which dates to 1664 and is one of Hals’ last works. Painting with almost savage economy and unflattering truth, the 84-year-old master allows the character of each woman to live through the centuries.
From a distance, the works look amazingly lifelike but as conventional as their subjects, pillars of the community. A detailed look shows a more spontaneous painting style. “Up close his strokes are almost abstract,” says Marie. “His brushwork is not perfect but it looks perfect and that may be the most remarkable thing about him. Hals did not flatter his subjects but he captured personality and character like no other painter.”