In the 17th century, many citizens – flushed with confidence and new wealth – were eager to sit for portraits. The portrait was not merely to create a likeness but was to reflect the subject’s social status.
Regents – the cities’ ruling class – were also keen to be immortalized in group portraits, emphasizing their sense of public responsibility. On five occasions, Frans Hals was commissioned to make a civic guard painting (schuttersstuk), at the time regarded a very important assignment. He was a painter like no other and managed to weld the civic guards together into a lively group. In his civic guard paintings, Frans Hals managed to create the impression that we have walked in on a moment in time captured in his painting.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Hals chose not to give his paintings a smooth finish, attempting instead to keep a sense of ‘life’ in them. As movement is a sign of life, he ensured that the viewers of his work perceived the subjects of his portraits as moving. With his characteristic loose brush strokes he accurately depicted all those who commissioned him.
Hals was an extremely courageous and skilled painter, with the great ability of pulling back from a canvas (or panel) as soon as he felt the subject had come to life. ‘An unusual style of painting, unique to himself and surpassing almost everyone’, wrote Schrevelius, Hals’ first biographer in the 17th century, of his working method. Even in the 19th century Hals’ work had great influence on painters as shown by the fact that Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Gustave Courbet and Eduard Manet visited Haarlem specifically to admire his portraits of regents and regentesses of the ‘Oudemannenhuis’ (Old men’s almshouse) dated 1664.