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

Regentesses of the Old Men's Almshouse

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

The two large format group portraits of the Regents and Regentesses of the Old Men's Almshouse in Haarlem are not only one of the last major work by this artist who ranks beside Rembrandt as the greatest of all portrait painters, they are also the last historically significant examples of this genre.

Whereas Hals previously presented individual gestures, attitudes and poses in a ceremonial and more than momentary context, here he isolates the individual parts and the individuals themselves. The faces above the white collars seem to float against the dark ground of a room that is difficult to distinguish. The "breakdown" of the figurative corresponds to the brushwork whose ductus is no longer fluid, but broken so that it seems to crumble into particles of colour. Here and there, a shimmer of red flares up through the black like the final glimmer of dying embers in the ashes.

Whereas the iconography of vanitas and the theme of transience were previously expressed through specific symbols in Dutch painting, we now find that the most vigorous genre of all - the group portrait - has also been imbued with the concept of mortality. Old age and death seem to menace, where once there was activity and sociability.