Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem

Ulrike Grafberger, Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A visit to a museum may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, you may just find yourself quietly changing your mind. Why? There are a few good reasons ...

Firstly, Haarlem is one of the loveliest towns in Holland. Distinctive canal-side houses, white draw-bridges and a lively market square – these alone make it worth a visit. Secondly, the street on which the Frans Hals Museum is located is truly a feast for the eyes. Narrow  gabled brick houses with idyllic inner courtyards create a clear impression of how people lived in Haarlem hundreds of years ago. I’d even move there myself! And the street name is quite something, as well – how many people can claim, nowadays, to be living on a street called the Groot Heiligland – the Great Holy Land? Here, you feel straightaway that you’re in a special, privileged  place.

Old men in the Holy Land

So back to the Frans Hals Museum. It’s not only on the Groot Heiligland, but is also in an historic building from the 17th century, the Oudemannehuis (´old men’s house´). In the 17th and 18th centuries, this was indeed an old men’s almshouse. And it wasn’t bad living there either. The green inner courtyard was itself the ideal meeting point for smoking a pipe, drinking a small beer (more than two beers was not allowed according to the house rules) and having a chat. Women were accommodated in a different building.

Initially it was thought that Frans Hals would also have been a resident of the old men’s almshouse in his later years, since the monumental portraits of the male and female regents from the old men’s almshouse are some of his most renowned works. But this is not the case. It was simply the spirit of the age that painters painted portraits of the town’s rich and beautiful. And Haarlem had them in droves.

The celebrity painter

It’s not just these regents – the wealthy citizens who ran the former almshouse and other institutions – who are portrayed on monumental canvases that hang in the Frans Hals Museum, but other celebs from the Golden Age as well, which brought Haarlem in particular great wealth and prosperity. Among the most renowned paintings by Frans Hals are the portrait groups – just as monumentally painted as the others– of the officers of the Haarlem Guild. On five paintings, Frans Hals immortalised 68 officers and non-commissioned officers. Each of the these men clad in black with white ruffs had to pay a few guilders to be included on the painting. On one of the paintings, Frans Hals immortalised himself, as well.

Frans Hals was also able to make good use of these guilders because he had a total of fourteen children, by two succesive wives, burdening him with a chronic lack of money. His importance as one of Holland’s most renowned painters – on a par with Rembrandt and Vermeer – was not acknowledged until after his death. He was already known during his lifetime, but was always broke. Was he able to pay for the delicacies that were already being served in the 17th century in more elevated society? The paintings in the Frans Hals Museum create a clear impression of living conditions at that time during the Golden Age: pewter jugs, olives, mature Gouda cheese, smoked herring and oysters. Not a bad life in the High Society of those times.

Wild strokes and a powerful role model

Frans Hals is celebrated as the first “modern artist” based on his powerful, bold brush strokes. In contrast to his contemporaries, who delicately built up their strokes, Frans Hals (1582 to 1666) painted in a free and lively style. It almost seems as if the people are in motion.

This extraordinary painting style spread, and hundreds of years later, Claude Monet and Eduard Manet also visited Haarlem to view the paintings of Frans Hals. If these famous French painters were also already making visits to Haarlem, then there’s actually no longer any excuse for not calling in at the Frans Hals Museum when in Haarlem...

Address for visitors:
Frans Hals Museum, 62 Groot Heiligland, Haarlem