Frans Hals and Anthony Van Dyck were contemporaries, both accomplished and reknowned mainly as portraitists. They were born in the same city (Antwerp-Spanish Netherlandish provinces), but their paintings reflected accurately the spirit of the two opposed societies in which they evolved. Van Dyck, trained at the Flemish baroque's source as Rubens's assistant, became the portraitist of the omnipotent European aristocracy, in the Roman Catholic countries. Frans Hals, member of the Guild of St. Luke in Harleem (Holland), excelled in depicting the 17th century Dutch society, stimulated by expansion, trade, finance, and Protestantism.
Marie-Claire de Croy, duchesse d'Havre
Anthony Van Dyck
Van Dyck's painting is a portrait representing a noble Flemish woman, Marie-Claire de Croy, posing with her child. The full-length figures are presented in an almost frontal position. The mother and her child compose together a triangular mass centered in the painting, the child partially overlapping her mother's right side. They stand on a rich oriental carpet half covering the floor, while the background is ornamented, on the left, with a sumptuous, silky green curtain, curving and catching the light, and on the right with a landscape at dusk, revealing melancholic rosy clouds and red roses.
The mother's high stature, amplified by her majestuous dress, occupies the most important part of the space. She is off-centered behind her son, in order to manage space and air around him. The disposition between the two figures emphasizes the mother's protective presence, without however giving the feeling that she confines her offspring: she is sheltering him, ready to provide guidance (her right hand is in touch with her son). The child's position, partially cut-off from his mother's silhouette, suggests that though still a child acting under his mother's oversight, he is developing enough personality to be a distinct person.
The two figures set up a very stable and coherent triangular structure: they are "Mother and Son". However, this sense of strong unity does not withdraw to their own identity. On the contrary, the features depicting the mother are balanced by opposite features depicting the child: they are looking in opposite direction; her arms are vertically resting on her dress, while he stretches horizontally the arms out; her achromatic clothes, white-gray pearls and alabaster skin, set off with the child's red robe and panache. This complementariness both increases the harmony of the construction and reveals too the individuality of each subject. Yes, she is a mother, but she is too an elegant woman socially involved. Today he is a child, who will be tomorrow called for great responsibilities and future.
Like the roses blossoming nearby, this mother is a blooming woman. The landscape at dusk is a metaphor illustrating her distinctive maturity, as well as her achievement. The meticulous way she is portrayed is a tribute to her femininity: she is set in magnificent garments like a precious jewel. The low-neckline, the transparent collerette, the sophisticated coiffure embellished with a panache and the pearl necklaces, frame the smooth curves of her white satin bust and the aristocratic head. The immaculate complexion contrasts with the elaborated dress, whose glittering splendor is meticulously rendered by a subtle neutral gradation. The painter has laid down slight, small, very precise touches of highlight to express the light captured by the metal filaments. The refined texture, the decorative knots, the large gray sleeves, the pearls send back to the viewer sparkles of light, tempered however by the black and soft velvet cape, which descends soberly on each side. The slender fingers of the ivory left hand on the deep velvet, recall to the observer this high ranked woman's femininity, while her right hand touches gently her son's silhouette, introducing proudly her progeny.
Like those of his mother, the child's garment attests of the extreme wealth of this family: he is wearing a long red velvet dress, embrodied with gold threads. Even if a certain innocence emanates from his person, his head and hands enclosed in white laced cuff and collar, his pretty coral face surrounded by a serious fringe, his bridled blond curls and his majestic hat and panache remind the viewer that his status requires self control. Though he does not yet express his mother's cold reserve, his gesture - stretching his left arm out and pointing his finger as if he were commanding -, his pretentious and peremptory gaze - cast in the same direction than his finger is pointing -, and his princely stance let the observer understanding that this child knows why he was born. His right hand, which is resting solemnly on his heart, confers him sovereignty and divine right: nothing can trouble the absolute certainty displayed on this little face.
The important size of the painting and its uplifted position on the wall instantly implies a hierarchical relationship with the beholder. The superior gaze the mother sends at the viewer - whose level stare is lower -, the solemn and affected stances of the two figures - standing upright in a godlike way -, the child's gesture, the impassive certitude and the condescending smile displayed on their faces compel the viewer to observe a certain distance. The sense of superiority and well-born social class conveyed by the two figures are amplified by the opulence of the textures and decoration.
The purpose of this painting, masterfully fulfilled by the talent of Van Dyck, is more to serve a social purpose - advertising the rank, the lineage, and the wealth of this family - than to display a tenderly familiar portrait of a mother and her son. The strong ties binding the two figures, wonderfully stated by Van Dyck's brush and composition, are before everything, guardianship of high-born blood, and education to satisfy noble duty.
Portrait of a Gentleman-1637
In "Portrait of a Gentleman", Frans Hals depicts a rather young man, stationed in a three-quarter position. The half-length figure centered in the painting is slightly backlighted: a quiet and soft light creates a subtle halo surrounding the figure's head and shoulders, while a smooth shadow is drawn behind his left side. Light and shadow are the two sole elements animating the flat and neutral background.
With a slight, almost imperceptible inclination of the head, the figure plants a direct glance at the observer whose viewpoint is at the same level. The gentleman's right arm rests alongside his body, while he stands with his left arm akimbo. By an effect of foreshortening, the folded sleeve opens its gussets in the foreground, giving thus the feeling that it comes out of the painting. Perspective and thickness are brought out in the figure. In addition, the sleeve's flowerings are translated with rapid, precipitate, almost clumsy brushstrokes which contrast with the more detailed way the gentleman is rendered. The imperfect, "unfinished" foreground simulates an almost photographical result, by blurring the nearest view and bringing into focus the middle ground displaying the splendid white costume and the gentleman's expressive face.
The gentleman's allure is that of an elegant, even fashionable, and without doubt wealthy man. His splendid white -achromatic- costume, enlightened by a golden sash girdling his waist (it could be a celebration outfit), attests to his well-to-do social position. This costume is a very studied confection, made of an "appliqué" of precious fabric vertical stripes. Quick, vivacious brushstrokes are used in a very spontaneous manner, in order to express the lively texture, and translate its ability to pick up and rebound the light at each move of the figure. The white starchy lace collar offers a complex pattern: stiff along the neck, high under the nape, it traps the gentleman's head, completely covers his left shoulder, and descends on the right side as an épaulette. A delicate row of small round buttons emerges from under the collar, punctuates by its shadow the costume's brightness, and finally plunges into the bubbling sparkles of the golden sash.
The gentleman's face colors - rosy cheeks, red lips and skin tone -, set off against the neutral background and the achromatic clothing. His large and high forehead gives him a gravity that majestic mustache and a distinguished goatee beard underline. This restrained aspect is however moderated by a slight smile, almost concealed under the mustache, while frizzy hair tufts, mischievously curl on each side of the gentleman's head, and soften his self-composure.
Surprisingly, while everything in this portrait should demonstrate a self-confident and distant personality, this is not exactly the feeling which is conveyed. In spite of the aplomb of the pose, the luxury of the clothing, the seriousness of the gentleman's face, and the irony of his concealed smile, the whole portrait reveals on the contrary vulnerability. With an acute sense of observation and psychology, a masterful brushstroke, Frans Hals has wonderfully captured the brief and ephemeral expressions which give substance to the gentleman's fragility. For example, his composition is organized in an asymmetric way, suggesting the gentleman's withdrawn nature: the gentleman shows off the right shoulder, while his left shoulder shuns away under the épaulette. The contradiction between the stiff collar's guidance with the inclination of the head reveals discomfort and thus, bashfulness. Instead of announcing rubicondity, the sudden colored cheeks show the gentleman's shyness. And finally, the insolent smile sketched on his face illustrates more his doubts and hesitations than his assurance, while the insubordinate curls are mutinously twirling and spiraling behind him, and in spite of him.
The beholder does not feel overwhelmed or lowered by the gentleman's portrait; nor does he feel invited to cordiality and comradeship. But the painting's dimensions, its position at the viewer's level stare and the efficient description of Frans Hals make it accessible. With his art, Frans Hals has, on one side, successfully satisfied the requirement of the portrait: providing a ceremonial and traditional image of a gentleman, advertising his rank, witnessing his society and his time; on another side, by skillfully revealing, through the appearance of formality, the inner qualities of the subject, he has provided an image, informing about the inner nature of the humankind.
In spite of the many and striking similarities they share, Anthony Van Dyck and Frans Hals' paintings show strong differences visible in "Marie-Claire de Croy and Child" and "Portrait of a Gentleman". In "Marie-Claire de Croy and Child", Van Dyck has ingeniously depicted the inaccessible gap between his figures and the rest of the world: big dimension's, no eye contact, ostensible surrounding, regal poises; on the other hand, with "Portrait of a Gentleman", Frans Hals has reduced the distance between the viewer and the sitter: small dimension's, eye contact, no background, natural pose. Both Van Dyck and Hals have organised a mise-en-scène in order to reveal more about their figures. In "Marie-Claire de Croy and Child", Van Dyck has surrounded the figures in a daily environment and made them acting in what suggest daily attitudes: there is thus no ambiguity concerning their role and status. Frans Hals's mise en scene is more ambiguous, subtler: though the pose of the gentleman advertise his rank and function, the record of facial expressions and imperceptible movements lead to the psychology of the figure. Furthermore, the contrast of treatment, visible for example in the achromatic textures, demonstrates two very distinct methods: Van Dyck's meticulous and elaborate finish method is opposed to the loose and free brushstroke of Hals.
Two different paintings, two different painters, two different worlds: "Marie-Claire de Croy and Child" represents a world which will be overthroned a century and a half later by the French Revolution; "Portrait of a Gentleman" emanates from the active Bourgeoisie society, the one who, within a century and a half, will rule trade and industry all over the world.