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

Malle Babbe

Oil on canvas, 75 x 64 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The name "Malle Babbe van Haarlem", which could be translated as Silly Betty or Mad Meg of Haarlem, is inscribed on an old piece of stretcher let into the modern one supporting the canvas in Berlin. In 1653, the Haarlem burgomasters allowed the local "Workhouse" (which was both a house of correction and a charitable institution) 65 guilders to care for Malle Babbe. The document also refers to Frans Hals mentally impaired son, Pieter, who had been confined in the same place since 1642. Thus a real person served as the model for Hals's painting in Berlin and for a number of related works. The owl was a common symbol of folly in the Netherlands, despite its classical association with Minerva, goddess of wisdom.

This picture shows Hals supreme mastery of one of the principal preoccupations of Baroque artists: the rendering of instantaneous emotion and movement. No seventeenth-century artist surpassed Hals in this fields. Hals's vigorous concentration on this was more than an ordinary rendering of reality. He selected moments when human nature reveals all its vital energy. Most frequently he shows the instant when the joy of life is at its highest: the spontaneous laughter of a child, the smile of a courtesan, or the wild shriek of an old crone, like in this painting.