Painted with Hals’s signature bravura
brushwork and talent for capturing the character of his subjects, this portrait of a fisherman with a beer keg provides us with a fascinating insight into life in 17th
century Holland as well as the working methods of the artist and his studio practice. Rediscovered in Ireland in the early 20th
century, the painting was first confirmed as Hals by William Valentiner and published in The Burlington Magazine
, where Tancred Borenius wrote that “for sheer beauty of handling, the picture must take high rank even among the works of Frans Hals: and the solidity as well as sensitiveness in the painting of the head is a source of continual delight to the eye… We cannot but acknowledge that here is one of the most notable accessions to the known works of Frans Hals which it has been given us to chronicle for some time.”1
Frans Hals was an artist ahead of his time, and is rightly regarded as one of the most important and influential artists in the history of western art. His fluid brushstrokes, technical agility and brilliantly free handling of paint looked ahead to a style of painting that would not appear until the Impressionists in the late 19th
century; indeed his works fell out of favor in the 18th
and early 19th
century, when realism and Neoclassicism were in style. In the 20th
century, however, Hals’s lively portraits of jovial characters were once again and rightly recognized as amongst the most engaging and important pictures of the 17th
Though Hals depicted a wide range of characters in his paintings, from drunken buffoons to elegant, high-ranking members of the militia, it was his own cronies that he seemed to capture with the most spirit. The fisherman in the present picture laughs contagiously as he hugs a beer keg from which he no doubt has had more than a few sips. The brewery label of a red stag is that of the Root Hart Brewery in Haarlem, which must have been a favorite of the artist as Hals painted a portrait of the owner of the brewery, Cornelis Guldewagen, in 1660 (fig. 1). Perhaps then the subject here was a favorite and fellow customer of the brewery, or at the least a friendly imbiber of its product.
Seymour Slive, who examined the picture firsthand in 1984, fully supported the painting as by Frans Hals, and dated it to the early 1630s. Slive’s detailed opinion of the picture and the group are described in a letter dated 7 August 1984.2
He grouped it with a small number of half-length paintings of animated figures, including the Fisherboy
now in the National Gallery of Ireland and the Fisherboy
now in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp.3
Claus Grimm, however, excludes this group of paintings from Hals’s oeuvre
and attributes them to the Master of the Fisherboy. As in the present painting, the backgrounds of these pictures are filled with light, brushy landscapes which are not consistent with Hals’s style and some were possibly executed by Adriaen Brouwer (c. 1605-1638), who worked in Hals’s studio.
The dating of the Fisherman with a Beer Keg
is difficult, and scholars have been inconsistent in their opinions. Valentiner placed it in the mid-1630s and, as described above, Slive agreed. Slive did, however, note in his 1970 monograph that the “breadth of treatment” in the hand and jug suggest a later date, and wondered whether Hals was either anticipating a later style or in his mature years simply returning to a favorite subject. More recently, Pieter Biesboer, Martin Bijl, and Norbert Middelkoop have each examined the painting firsthand; they all date the painting to the 1640s, as a collaborative work between Hals and his studio. Bijl believes that the painting is largely a work by the studio, with corrections by the master made at the very end, including the stag, to enhance the painting. Indeed, the painting affords today’s admirer a captivating examination into the studio practices of the artist.
By the late 1620s, Hals had achieved fame as an artist and had an active workshop, including his sons Harmen Hals (1611-1669) and Frans Hals II (1618-1669), his brother Dirck Hals (1591-1656), and Judith Leyster (1609-1660), amongst others. In teaching his apprentices his tricks for capturing light and shadow in such a distinct, lively manner, Hals would begin to build up the layered contours of a figure and have a student attempt to finish it, and lastly the master himself would give it a final flourish. This sort of fluid, step-by-step enhancement by both the studio and Hals is evident in the present painting, and in their examination, both Bijl and Biesboer point specifically to a number of brushstrokes that are markedly by the hand of the artist. Hals had a unique method of painting dark highlights in the contours of his figures; the 17th
century Dutch word for these low-light touches was diepsels
, though no current term exists. In the present painting, these diepsels
can be seen, for example, around the edge of the sitter’s elbow and arm, in his face under his nose in his mustache, and in his hand, around the wrist and the thumb. It is in these mostly black and darker touch ups that one can most clearly see Hals’ hand. Indeed it is Hals's virtuosity in these final, brilliant brushstrokes that make this painting come together as the impressive and lively picture we see today.
We are grateful to Pieter Biesboer, Martin Bijl, and Norbert Middelkoop for their assistance in the cataloguing of this painting.
1. See T. Borenius, under Literature, p. 246.
2. Available upon request.
3. See S. Slive, under Literature, 43, cat. no. 70. For Grimm’s listing of the group, see his Slive concordance in Grimm, under Literature, p. 291.