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

Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard

Oil on canvas, 175 x 324 cm
Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem

The portrait of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard is the first major group portrait by Frans Hals, and the first monumental civic guard painting in the new era of Dutch painting. Together with the leaders of public, charitable and professional associations, the civic guard societies were the main patrons to commission group portraits. This patronage took on considerable proportions in the course of the century. These group portraits are also of value as historical documents, for which lists were drawn up giving the names of the figures portrayed. The paintings themselves were displayed prominently on the premises of the respective association.

These civic guard portraits were an expression of the Baroque will to representation, whose tradition is rooted in the medieval era. There had been civic guards in the Netherlands since the 13th century. They had played an important role in the emancipation of the cities and towns from feudal rule and had gained considerable political and military significance in the Netherlands' struggle for independence.

Cornelis van Haarlem had already painted the officers of the St George Civic Guard in 1599. Hals, however, revolutionizes this type of painting. Instead of merely painting a row of individual portraits, he places them within a specific context by creating a banquet scene. This is not simply a moment captured at a table, but an extremely witty and calculated composition in which a scenic context is created between all the figures involved, and, on the other hand, each of the figures poses and acts independently and individually. Hals has found a new and persuasive solution to the problem of portraying a large group without difference of rank.

Hals seems to have arranged the officers casually around the festive board. But this is not the case. The places they occupy are in strict accord with military protocol. The colonel, the company's highest ranking officer, is seated at the head of the table; at his right is the provost, the second ranking officer. They are flanked by the company's three captains and the three lieutenants are at the lower end of the table. The three ensigns, who were not members of the officer corps, and the servant stand. Hals other group portraits of officers at banquet tables, which look equally informal, follow a similar hierarchical arrangement.