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

Regents of the Old Men's Almshouse

Oil on canvas, 172,5 x 256 cm
Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem

The two great portrait groups of the Regents and Regentesses of the Old Men's Alms House in Haarlem, which today both hang in the Frans Halsmuseum in the town, are traditionally said to have been painted in 1664. The five Regents portrayed by Hals held their offices from 1662 to 1665 and it was very usual to mark the end of their term of office by commissioning a group portrait of this kind. They are Jonas de Jong, Mattheus Everswijn, Dr Cornelis Westerloo, Daniel Deinoot and Johannes Walles. As no documented portraits of these men survive, it has proved impossible to link the names to individual portraits.

There is an old legend that Hals, reduced to poverty in his last years and an inmate of the Alms House, took his revenge on the Regents by depicting them in unflattering fashion. In fact, although he was certainly poor, he was never in the Alms House and the bold, free and animated style of the group is also evident in his other portraits of this period. It has been convincingly argued that the unusual expression on the face of the Regent who is seated on the right is the consequence of partial facial paralysis rather than - as the legend has it - drunkenness. Such candour is characteristic of Hals who felt no need to disguise the Regent's affliction. The standing figure, without a hat, is the servant of the Regents.

These two group portraits, painted at the very end of Hals's long career, display the remarkable shorthand that he (and other great painters in old age) discovered. No brushstroke is out of place or extraneous: there is no unimportant description of detail but a concentration upon essentials, the evocation of character in a few unerringly placed brushstrokes: