Great Masters In Painting And Sculpture: Frans Hals by Gerald S. Davies

Artistic taste is forever changing and there is obviously no such thing as a balanced opinion in the arts, where personal judgment and preference are the only currencies. And so styles come and go, bodies of work pass in and out of favour. The works of JS Bach were forgotten until revived a century on by Mendelssohn. Shakespeare was once derided as dense and difficult. And a Dutch painter called Frans Hals thankfully did not witness, a century after his death, his works changing hands for next to nothing. And, since taste continues to change, it is always informative to read the critical opinions of former eras, because it might be possible that critics really did see things differently.

Published in 1904, Frans Hals by Gerald S. Davies was written more than a century on from the low point of the artist’s stature, and the better part of two and a half centuries after the painter’s death in 1666. Copiously illustrated with glossy black and white plates, the book formed part of a series called Great Masters in Painting and Sculpture. We must thus anticipate the text to be of the skimping quality we usually expect when we perhaps reluctantly open up a populist publisher’s ‘Great Artists’ series.

But this 1904 volume is beautifully written. And what really does surprise is the uncluttered, modern style of the prose. There are no great condescending or judgmental passages about the artist or his character. There is considerable fact about his life, about which in reality we know remarkably little. But above all the book contains some inspired writing on and analytical observation of the paintings, some of which, incidentally, have since been reattributed. This adds another aspect to the experience, since it illustrates how our appreciation of the arts is very much conditioned by what we think we might know about the context or source of the object.

Frans Hals, it appears, was something of a rake. He was never rich, was in fact often in debt and, more often than not, close to penniless. He spent much of his time in the pub, where he drank to excess. He married early, and the union endured, but we now next to nothing about his domestic life. And yet, the respectable gentlemen of the St. Joris Shooting Guild regularly employed him to depict the club members in all their proud finery, full face or three-quarter front, depending on how much each sitter had contributed to the funding of the project.

Gerald Davies’s text is especially successful in its identification and description of the detail in the pictures. He identifies and locates elements of the artist’s style that the casual observer would simply not see, and throughout he approaches his subject with an enthusiasm that draws the reader into the discussion and is never didactic. In several sections of the book, the author draws parallels and cites contrasts with Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt, all of whom, of course, achieved significantly more fame in their lifetimes than Hals did in his. Their work, perhaps, never did go out of favour, but that of Frans Hals certainly did. Painted largely in greys and black, the paintings of Frans Hals often appear to be more puritan in spirit even than their strait-laced sitters.

But then, as Davies point out, there is a young man bearing a standard, a coloured sash, an item of still life that adds dramatic statement by introducing contrast. And, of course, there are the chuckling wenches, the singing drunks and the other low life subjects that Hals chose to paint where, with arguably unique skill and talent, he captured an instantaneous expression as if it had been photographed.

Davies also insists that the paintings of Hals need a large viewing space. For the author, close-up viewing is too revealing of a technique that often approaches complete abstraction. And here we do find a difference from today’s critical taste, where such free brushwork would be cited as evidence of an artistic strength. Davies does not criticise it, but his era preferred not to scrutinise it in search of the psychological dimension that is now so completely essential to any critical analysis of an artist’s work.

Tastes may change and artists may come in and out of favour. Frans Hals continues to be seen as one of the greatest of painters and in the intervening years much has been written about him. But great art endures because it summarises the sensibilities of its era, at least those we insist on imposing upon it. Great writing works the same way and let us continue to include in that category critical works such as this Davies book on Hals, purely on its contemporary relevance and not merely because it offers an historical perspective on the work.