A student once asked the grand American painter John Singer Sargent to recommend some old master mentors, “Begin with Frans Hals,” said Sargent. “After that go to Madrid and copy Velazquez. Leave Velazquez until you have got all you can out of Frans Hals.”
By a blessed coincidence we have a chance to see what Sargent meant in two rare exhibitions. Here within the D.C. beltway the National Gallery shows about 60 of Hals’ prime paintings (through Dec. 31). It is the first comprehensive international survey of the beloved artist who revitalized Dutch portrait painting and set the stage for Rembrandt. Although lacking such key works as “The Laughing Cavalier” and “Gypsy Girl,” the show is as plump and rounded as a Haarlem barmaid.
Up in Manhattan the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents about 40 paintings by Don Diego de Silva Velazquez (through Jan. 7). It is the first major exhibition of his art ever held outside Spain where most of his small legacy of some 100 works are housed in Madrid’s Prado museum. In contrast to the generous Hals show, Velazquez’s is short nearly all his greatest works. No “Las Meninas,” no “Surrender at Breda,” no “The Weavers.” Yet Velazquez is all there--or nearly--in virtually everything he painted. The relative girth and leanness of the shows match the artists’ sensibilities.
But why are these two 17th-Century artists--men who never met--so differently similar? And why do they still seem important to us?
Velazquez (1599-1660)--the younger man--served an older order: royal, repressive and Catholic. Once King Charles IV of Spain recognized his talent history never forgot him.
Hals (1583-1666)--the older man--celebrated a young Dutch Republic painting the brewers and textile manufacturers who threw out the Spanish and Catholicism to become their own bourgeoise royalty. Hals was Haarlem’s leading portraitist all his life but when he died his art went into eclipse for two centuries. He was essentially forgotten until rediscovered by 19th-Century naturalists.
The list of classic modern artists influenced by the rediscovered Hals stretches from Courbet to the American Robert Henri, but Manet is most significant here. He combined the dual influence of Hals and Velazquez to invent modern art.
This triangulation of blood lines is so clear that these exhibitions ought to provide us insight not just into this marvelous art but into the character of Modernism.
Character. The image of Velazquez is both clear and enigmatic. He was the consummate courtier whose lifelong ambition to be raised to the nobility was frustrated by the snobbery and anti-Semitism of the times.
“What, give the Order of Santiago to a mere painter? Besides, they say he’s part-Portuguese and they are all, you know, Jews.”
Velazquez’s image is immaculate. He was a devoted husband, cultivated in the classics and cosmopolitan thanks to his friendship with Peter Paul Rubens and two royally sponsored sojourns to Italy. On the first he fell in love with Venetian art, on the second it was a woman. He had a natural child by her. Thank goodness for one peccadillo to humanize this exemplary man. He even died rich.
Hals, according to historical fiction, was a rostering tosspot who married twice, had a dozen children, went to bed each night “filled to the gills” and prayed soon to be raised to heaven. One story has it that he gave up the prayer after one night when his waggish students pulled his bed toward the ceiling on hidden ropes. He never paid his bills and died in the almshouse.
Much of this turns out to be factually questionable. At the same time artists’ legends can be poetically revealing.
So far these guys don’t seem to have much in common. It gets clearer in the work. Both started out doing genre scenes and remained devoted to images of the oddness of the commonplace, Velazquez painting the dwarfs and jesters of the court, Hals the tipsy cavaliers and derelict women of the town. A detached, democratic ideal was in the 17th-Century air and both artists breathed it. Significantly the only historical celebrity Hals ever painted was the rational philosopher Rene Descartes.
Among early works by each are Velazquez’s “An Old Woman Cooking Egg” done when he was just 19. It is a curious tenebrous scene with strangely tilted space. A crone cooks eggs in a pottery bowl while a beetle-browed boy sits further off holding a bottle and a gourd. The scene--ordinary enough--seems disturbed and disjointed. Tightly rendered, it seems less painted than willed as if Velazquez were some artistic mutant capable of making a picture with his laser eyes. The effect is so intense that for years scholars have searched the picture for some larger allegorical meaning.
You’d never do that with Hals’ “The Rommel Pot Player.” It’s just a scene of a bedraggled street musician surrounded by a bunch of grimacing kids. Velazquez’s children tend to be stiff miniature adults, Hals could get with their silliness. The gap-toothed musician looks like a sweet guy whose mind is hardly older than the boys’. It’s just a scene of everyday life but with a difference.
The idea of humanistic tolerance was virtually born in the 17th Century and you can see it in everything Hals painted and in the way he painted it, with sparkle and individualistic bravura, like Falstaff as a master fencer.
His sitters--including those among the reigning burghers--were rarely pretty and scarcely genteel, even dolled up in their black Spanish finery, gold embroidery and white ruffs. They were a rough bunch, vulgar and red-faced like Claes Duyst van Voorhouat with his arrogant pose and cherry-red nose. (Sometimes Hals’ brushwork gets too schematic and formularized but the number of flush-faced people he painted suggests the Haarlem folk imbibed a lot of their own brew.)
Whether a slightly rueful bride or a cunning East India trader like Pieter van den Broecke, they present themselves with shameless cheer and Hals paints them, warts, exuberance and all. One might reasonably expect a Hogarth-like element of satire or grotesquerie but its not there. When somebody says his crazy “Malle Babbe” is like one of Goya’s witches it doesn’t wash because Hals doesn’t believe in witches and likes the old character with the huge tankard and the owl on her shoulder.
In some of his later, sketchy kid portraits he seem to lay the groundwork for the 18th Century, the Rococo and the smile of reason. He knew these people for what they were and held them in affection without an ounce of sentimentality. The Laughing Realist.
Velazquez was equally tolerant but his portraits play very differently. Charles IV was a bit of a libertine and funny-looking with his inbred Hapsburg jaw and cherry-red mouth but Velazquez painted all that with subtly nuanced dignity and perlescent tones. There is no more vivid or compassionate portrait than that of his servant Juan de Pareja, painted the year Velazquez graciously set him free.
Both artists are famous for figures that look like they are in the room with us. They are clearly paintings but they have extraordinary presence. Such vivacity was enough for Hals but Velazquez worried about what it implied. You can read his mind in the paintings.
“I painted Queen Marina in her black and silver gown and she looks quite as if she is in the room. But her skirt looks like a mountain. I painted the Count-Duke of Olivares on horseback. Rubens would surely approve my color and atmosphere but the rearing horse never comes down as he would needs do in a world as real as I have made. I painted Joseph’s bloody coat being brought to Jacob. Each set of figures is less specific as they are further from the viewer. I made space with light and air in it but now I can’t really tell how much space is there.”
Velazquez didn’t solve these problems of space, movement, scale and illusion until “Las Meninas” but he thought about them constantly. This formal contemplation was his real legacy to Manet.
Hals was inventive and sensitive but not thoughtful. When he painted his flashy “The Meagre Company” he broke the old class-picture composition and created work of swashbuckling energy and character. It is a masterpiece even though he did not finish it himself.
To modern eyes Hals comes most firmly into his own with two group portraits of the male and female regents of the old men’s almshouse in Haarlem.
The indigent Hals himself had applied for a pension and the two pictures look like what he might have seen and felt standing before the boards, hat in hand and about to faint from heat and shame.
“The men looked at me with scorn and indifference. Their heads seemed to float off their bodies and for a moment all I could see was the red knee of one of their breeches. The only one who seemed to understand was the the old souse Mr. X. Drunkards understand. The women’s board was worse, so stern and contemptuous. Again it was silly Madame X who showed me a flicker of kindness and the whole town thinks she’s a dunce.”
Ancestors of contemporary painter Francis Bacon, the two paintings finally define Hals as a great humanist painter leaving Velazquez as the genius seer of reality. They recall what the cynical Pope Innocent X said on seeing his portrait by the Spaniard.
“Too true,” he said, “Too true.”