The Portraitist Frans Hals and His World (epub)

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Book Name:The Portraitist Frans Hals and His World
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Story Line:

A deal is a deal, or so thought the officers of the Saint George civic guard company of Amsterdam’s District 11. They wanted a portrait of themselves to commemorate their service to the city, as was customary. It had to be dignified, reflecting their virtues as brave and responsible citizens, but without being stuffy and formal, like the old civic guard portraits. In those earlier group paintings, everyone appeared in the same stiff pose, and they all looked so much alike it was hard to tell one person from another. No, these leading men of the great city of Amsterdam wanted something lively and colorful to hang in their headquarters—something modern.

Ordinarily, Amsterdam civic guards hired Amsterdam painters for such an important commission. The Saint George officers, however, broke with tradition. They went beyond the city limits and sought out a celebrated master painter from Haarlem. The terms of the agreement were clear: the artist was to come to Amsterdam on a regular basis, and the sixteen guardsmen would take turns posing for him in a borrowed studio. He was to be paid sixty guilders per figure.

Everything should have gone smoothly. Travel from Haarlem to Amsterdam was relatively easy now that there was a canal between the two cities. The painter could take a barge or go by land along the tow path. Overnight stays in Amsterdam would be necessary, but not too much of an inconvenience. Moreover, this was an experienced painter of civic guard portraits; he had already completed three of them for Haarlem companies and was about to start work on his fourth. He could give the Amsterdam militiamen just what they were looking for, since what they were looking for was just what they had seen in his paintings.

In the end, though, it did not work out well. Things took a bad turn when, after a number of sessions in Amsterdam and making good progress on the large canvas, the painter suddenly stopped coming to the city. He refused to leave his Haarlem home and studio. It was too much trouble, he complained, and his lodgings in Amsterdam were costing him a lot of money for which he was not getting reimbursed. If they wanted the painting finished, they would have to come to him.

That was certainly not the arrangement, the officers argued as they filed the first of several legal complaints against him. He could not possibly expect all of them to travel to Haarlem. Come to Amsterdam and finish the painting, they demanded, or they would have another artist finish it. Still hopeful that they could persuade the painter to resume his work, they sweetened the pot and offered him an additional six guilders per figure.

By 1637, four years after the commission, negotiations had broken down completely. Much to the dismay of the Amsterdam guardsmen, Frans Hals would not budge. He was leaving more than a thousand guilders on the table, a significant amount of money for any seventeenth-century artist but especially for a man with financial problems. But he could not afford to be away from Haarlem so often, or so he said—he had apprentices to supervise, other projects to attend to, and a family to care for. He called their bluff. Let someone else finish the damn painting.

It was not the first time that a brilliant but stubborn and irascible artist had aggravated a client—Michelangelo famously caused splitting headaches for the popes he served (and vice versa)—nor would it be the last; Rembrandt, a contemporary of Hals, was a difficult character, and Picasso was best avoided when he was in “one of his moods.”1 We do not know how typical such behavior was for Hals. But one thing is certain: never again would a commission from an Amsterdam civic guard company come his way.

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