She was the wife of Pieter Olycan the brewer. He would became mayor of Haarlem in Holland and have the money to engage Frans Hals to make paintings of them. So much for the blatant facts! You know me, I don’t just regurgitate Wikipedia on this site. Because there’s something going on here that’s really important.
Most people will just look at her painting in the Rijksmuseum and move along to the next. They’ve seen it, beheld it and they can tell their friends that they’ve seen it. Yet take a closer look at the lady’s ring. Look at it and you’ll see the detail literally sparkle. Yet just behind it are some of the crudest strokes an artist ever put to canvas.
So what’s going on here? Here’s one of the finest painters that ever lived and he’s simply not doing himself justice. He should have emphasized every hair of the fur coat she’s wearing. That’s what painters were doing at the time and do to this day. What’s more, it’s what painters are supposed to do, isn’t it?
I’m certain that it’s not what Frans Hals would have wanted though. For he wasn’t the greatest of painters just because he could use a ruler to measure each hair on her fur coat and replicate each one perfectly. Anybody can do that if they’ve practiced painting long enough. It’s called being a craftsman. Frans Hals was an artist, and that’s a world away from pushing paintbrushes for a living.
He knew that a blind photographic reproduction only forms an image in the mind of the beholder. Frans Hals knew that to convey something of value, you need more than paint.
A lot more. And it takes real guts to do it too.
Focussing On The Life Of Maritje Voogt.
Frans Hals drew a line in the air and came to a decision. For he knew how to start, and when to stop. Frans Hals took a few details and focussed on them. And he didn’t get tangled up in every tiny detail. Marigte Voogt’s lace is testimony to his ability to cast fine lines. So it’s not to any lack of ability we need seek. It’s something greater, and something that transcends plodding photographic “art”. The kind that doesn’t know where to start. And once started on its treadmill doesn’t know when to stop.
There is a very real secret in the sparingness of his strokes depicting her clothing. The coarse brush strokes of the fur that appear rushed are anything but. The fact that they are the perfect colour and shape imply something greater here. He could have painted the entire thing as van de Velde might, with detail down to the very last hair. What’s more it’s what many people wanted. Then as now.
Only it wasn’t what Frans Hals wanted. Not only was he a master painter, he was also a master communicator. It’s what makes art more than mere depiction. It means art lies outside the limits of the craftsman or intellectual.
An Economy Of Style?
Frans Hals brings us a portrait of someone who sat before him four hundred years ago. He has depicted her as a living being. That is, if you know how to meet a painting of this calibre. Because a painting like this isn’t for passive observation. Someone looking at it as an object of scrutiny will only see coarse brush strokes where there ought to be detail. But Frans Hals wasn’t painting for them.
He was painting for his destiny. And for people who would actually appreciate his curt brushstrokes. His seeming economy of effort was anything but – for economy only exists in the leaden world of time and money. His economy in depicting the folds of the clothes was as much his art as any detail. For his art forms a balance between restraint and exuberance. Perspective and richness. In other words, he knew where his focus lay.
Finding this balance is far harder to do, and it’s why so few can do it. Frans Hals knew where this balance lay. And it’s not a balance between two things: it’s a balance between is and isn’t. Between portraying and withholding. As I wrote in my post about Thomson, his ability to withhold something led to his art being engaging.
Because engagement requires a coming together and oversteps the limits of objective thinking. You simply can’t engage if you’re being objective: it’s a contradiction in terms. You’ll sit there with your wooden intellect and complain that he’s not finished it for you. Just as the academics did with Tom Thomson, three hundred years later.
Because if you are prepared to engage with Frans Hals, you take a step into a world he prepared for you with such love. He was deliberate in withholding the details. He withheld the very things he wanted to share with you. For in withholding them, he is asking you to form them for yourself.
He wasn’t acting like some carbuncle of a carpenter who guards his knowledge from the uninitiated. He was withholding something to which he had given very specific clues. The very things he withheld were plain to see in your imagination.
It is you who must bring them forth in your mind’s eye. And in being alive yourself, you bring someone long dead back to life. That’s when you’re in for a real delight, the very delight that Frans Hals took in painting it.
Footnote: you can find a better picture here. I’m afraid that the lighting at the Rijksmuseum leaves a little to be desired. No doubt someone checked that all the guidelines were followed correctly, only to forget to look at the picture afterwards. That is the real tragedy.