Thursday, January 22, 2009
Frans Hals. Regents of the Old Men's Alms House, 1664.
These darker months are a fine time for fraternization. Winter is an exciting season where the cold tempts us to bundle our clothes, savor warm and heavy foods and defend against the chill with strong drink. And who better to share in these delights than our close friends and colleagues? When the days are shorter time passes strangely. As we enter our favorite basement tavern or ground-floor pub following an afternoon lecture the evening has already turned black. A short gathering can feel as if it were stretched across several hours once the sun has receded; the measurement by its shadows is lost. Our lethargy is encouraged by the threat of cold. We seek the warmth of another drink and shiver with the thought of leaving the comfort of our compatriots for the cutting winds. Our excursions into friendships become grand, and our revelry can become excessive. Ah, the wonder! The stasis of a winter gathering often matches (and surely Prof. Peeters would agree) the agile meandering and bar-stool swapping of the summertime.
In Hals' painting of a group of regents we find a similar wintery scene. Hals was famously destitute at the time of this painting and aged well into his eighties. Though he had struggled with debts through all of his professional life it was the charity of a few bags of peat that helped the painter through the winter of 1664, without which he would have died. The facilitators of this charity were the Regents seated here (or a group nearly identical).
For this commissioned piece objectivity was likely Hals' greatest struggle. The impoverished artist was reliant on his sitters for his survival. Working coatless in a frigid tavern he had to maintain concentration in the face of the regents' obvious spoils. They were made comfortable by their heavy cloaks, their finely-made hats, the humming warmth of a neon lamp and - according to Hals' diary - "a small but swollen velvet purse from which bouquets of cannabis poured like granules from a canister of salt."
The painting, once completed, bore Hals finest hallmarks (forgive the inadvertent pun!). Point to any of the regents' cloaks and the color there will be described as black. But note the varieties of this single shade! The blacks mix with reds and blues, fluctuating in the ripples of fabric and light. The tones of the regents' skins take similar shape. Our group is a rosy one. The man with the dangling cigarette, judging by the flush of his skin, may be enjoying himself a bit more than the other fellows. To our right we find a gentleman who may be abstaining from the merriment; note his faint complexion. Though his gloved fingers suggest he is fighting for warmth his fallow skin indicates that he may have been "thin-blooded."
Though we may not delight in Hals' circumstances we may be thankful for the mastery of his hand. And while we may squint at the group of regents to whom Hals was indentured they may stand to remind us of our own friends, close and familiar as they are.
Posted by Hermann Wundrum at 5:35 AM