When is a Hals a Hals?

Frans Hals Gentleman in White

Frans Hals, Dutch, 1580–1666
Portrait of a Gentleman in White, ca. 1637
Oil on canvas
Legion of Honor, Gallery 15

This week, the Los Angeles Times reported on the authentication of a Frans Hals painting that was once owned by Elizabeth Taylor. Long attributed the “School of Hals,” the painting was re-attributed to the artist himself by a team of scholars brought together by Christie’s auction house.

About twenty years ago FAMSF curator of European painting Lynn Orr published a catalog entry about the Museums’ Frans Hals painting currently on display at the Legion of Honor. The case of the Gentleman in White is a fascinating example of how authentication or discerning an artist's hand is not an exact science, but rather requires a judicious and subjective weighing of numerous variables, including style and technique. The following excerpt discusses the issues specific to the Museums’ Hals.

In the early 1990s, a light cleaning of the Gentleman in White enhanced the brilliance of the painting’s spontaneous brushwork. The deftness with which the facial planes have been constructed became more apparent, as subtleties of tonal gradation join with dashes of purer color to suggest the form and vitality of the skin passages. In this specific combination of refinement and boldness, the San Francisco painting is closely related to the signed and dated Portrait of a Man of 1637 (Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie). Both portraits approach the representation of form, outline, and costume in a similar manner. For example, in each, the shoulder is outlined with short zigzag brushstrokes, which activate the contours with little respect for realities of the costume itself. Independent of the image they recreate, such brisk individual strokes exist as abstract patterns floating on the pictorial surface.

Hals does not allow the freedom with which the paint is applied in the drapery passages to take precedence over the description of the facial features. Rendered with much tighter brushstrokes, the face is brought to life by a warmer coloration. In this portrait the vigor of the brushwork suggests the personality of the sitter, who appears arrogant and strong willed.

The contrast between the staccato brushwork of the costume, which in patches is more mechanical than one would expect from Hals, and the fluidity of the facial planes, coupled with the somewhat awkward placement of the projecting elbow, have led some scholars to speculate that this portrait is not by the master himself. Yet the personality of the sitter is placed before us with such consummate skill that the image is as compelling psychologically as it is pictorially. Although the authorship is still unresolved, the beauty and vitality of the portrait reward the viewer’s attention.