The thing about Frans Hals is that his paintings have so much life to them; and it’s hard to explain what Hals was able to accomplish that others had not. I’ve been reading about the history of group portraits and it can easily get pedantic with discussion of individualism verses group dynamics and group identity. It’s simplest, at least for me, to equate it to the art of photography, something we all know a little about -- at least in its most rudimentary form.
Most group portraits often come off as posed, stilted – you know what I’m talking about – that moment when the photographer says “cheese” and everyone smiles, holding their breath, repressing every tendency to be natural and consciously projecting that forced gaze of what they want people to see – “hold it . . . “hold it . . . . Cheeeeeese--”
Hals’ paintings have none of that. The impression you get from many of his works is altogether incognizance. Sure, the group has been gathered for the portrait. Sure, they are all dressed in their respective garb. Everyone knows why the photographer is there and what’s going to happen, but it’s not the moment of “Cheese”. As the photographer is getting thier flash ready, the tripod adjusted and angled just right to include everyone, someone wonders aloud if one in group is missing, two others are off in conversation about where they’re going later, still another is glancing back to see if he’s blocking the view of anyone. It’s thirty seconds before that moment and everyone’s guard is down in the most indicative -- wholly unconscious moment of themselves -- right before they all have to breath deep, repress that, and become every bit self-conscious of thier look towards posterity.
Just look at these paintings and think about it. Hals had never seen a photograph in his life and the idea of a camera was totally foreign to him, but the whole idea of capturing a moment -- a REAL moment -- that is the most telling of his subjects (given the difficulty of a group portrait) came strictly out of his own head. Hals understood something about a frozen image that most of us don’t -- even though we’ve lived with photography all our lives.
Now that is the problem facing photography;
but think what you have to do as a painter to capture this and make it look
natural. It’s one thing to conceptually understand it. It’s quite another
to be able to pull it off – and pull it off without having a photograph in
front of you to paint from. You don't get a feeling that these people had
to pose for hours -- THAT, my friend, is the magic of Frans
By: Natasha Wallace
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