HALS, Frans
(b. 1580, Antwerpen, d. 1666, Haarlem)

Pieter Cornelisz van der Morsch

Oil on panel transferred to canvas, 88,1 69,5 cm
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

In aristocratic and elite circles the international courtly taste for historiated portraits was occasionally followed. These works show sitters in the guise of classical; mythological, allegorical, literary, and even biblical characters implying that the model possessed the virtues of the personages whose roles they play. But character and status was most often depicted in a more mundane way by the naturalistic portrayals of patrons dressed in the fashion of their time and class, although then, as now, there were older people who preferred to be seen wearing clothes that were the 'dernier cri' when they were young. Additionally, then, as now, accessories and props were introduced to allude to the character or profession of sitters or to abstract ideas. Decoding their meanings is not always as straightforward as it may seem. The modern spectacles through which we look at portraits of another epoch can obscure their meaning.

Consider the smoked herring held in one hand by Pieter van der Morsch and the herrings he has in his straw basket in Frans Hals's portrait of him. At first blush his herrings appear to identify him as a fisherman or fishmonger hawking his wares. This seemingly convincing interpretation, which had been accepted since the portrait entered the literature in the nineteenth century, appears to be clinched by the conspicuous inscription: 'WIE BEGEERT' (Who Desires [One]). However, a close study of the seventeenth-century iconology of the smoked herring and of what could be learned about van der Morsch from contemporary sources demonstrated this interpretation is wrong. Van der Morsch was not a fisherman or fishmonger. He was a Leiden municipal court messenger who belonged to one of the city's literary societies where he played the part of a buffoon. A book of his own verse includes an epitaph he composed for himself. In it he characterizes himself as a man who distributes smoked herrings. Ample evidence establishes that in his time 'to give someone a smoked herring' (iemand een bokking geven) meant to shame someone with a sharp rebuke. The inscription on the painting is not a reference to the sale of smoked herrings. It refers to van der Morsch's readiness to ridicule. In Hals's painting the smoked herrings and inscription have been used to portray van der Morsch in his role as the wise fool of his literary society.