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

The Merry Drinker (detail)

Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

An examination of Hals's technique helps to explain how he achieves the suggestion of palpitating life. A close-up of the Merry Drinker makes it appear a wild and rather loose combination of irregular strokes, patches, and daubs which tend to be sharp, broken, and angular; but seen at the right distance, this impulsive brushwork resolves itself into a coherent impression, suggests form and texture, besides a most amazing play of light for its own sake. This principle of relying on the optical effect at a certain distance and upon the suggestiveness of spontaneous, disconnected brushstrokes is one of the greatest discoveries in the history of painting. Both devices occur in sixteenth-century Venetian painting, but were never applied with Hals's consistency.

It should be emphasized that there is no revolutionary change in the way Hals built up his portraits. He always begins by mapping the whole form in the middle tint. Then, upon this foundation, details are drawn with deft touches of light and shadow modelling the form and animating the surface at the emphatic points. The single stroke of his brush, although highly individual and spontaneous, is always adjusted to the character of the surface, and takes precisely the course needed to express the variety of surfaces and substances. Though each brushstroke retains its individual identity, there is never an abrupt break in the sequence of values, but a constant, subtle fusion of tones and a sensitive control over the value relationships. Form is consistently built up from the darks and the lights, and the painting increases in vivacity towards the highlights, where touches of impasto heighten the vibrating character of the whole.

The detail of the head of the Merry Drinker shows two basic touches which are characteristic of the master. One is an angular or zigzag stroke which has a tendency to break up planes and to blur their edges; this counteracts roundness and isolation of forms and creates a steady surface movement. The other touch is hatching; these short parallel strokes create both a continuity of pictorial movement and vibration. The integration of these two devices and the seeming irregularity of his touch, together with its spontaneous character, are largely responsible for the brilliant surface life of his pictures. The irregularity of the touch is only an illusion: Hals's brushstrokes are kept under absolute control. His works have the hidden order and balance characteristic of the best Baroque painting. All his spirited surface treatment never degenerates into mere pattern because he subtly fuses the tones with an eye on the larger expression of form.

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