Thursday, 15 October 2009

A Haarlem Genius

The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals by Michael Kernan

A set of ancient notebooks turn up in a Long Island garage and Peter Van Overloop, a Columbia graduate student, sets to translating them. He finds himself immersed in the life and times of the Dutch painter Frans Hals, for the notebooks seem to be the painter's diaries.

Hals was a prominent citizen of Haarlem, where a flourishing artistic community included painters like Jacob van Ruysdael, Pieter Saenredam and Jan Steen. I particularly enjoyed learning more about Judith Leyster, who was a pupil of Hals and one of my favourite painters.

Hals emerges as a thoroughly funny, charming man and the book is a fascinating portrait of the way of life in his era. He was much in demand to paint the portraits of the Great and the Good – we learn about the social mores among the elite citizens of the time.

I was very interested in the story behind the huge group portraits he painted of the officers of the militia regiments of the city. Indeed, his only known self-portrait is as a face in the background of one of these.

It was very fashionable for prominent men to hold officer rank in a militia regiment – largely a ceremonial position in a peaceful and prosperous country. They liked having group portraits in their elaborate uniforms: Hals' contemporary, Rembrandt, famously painted the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, better known as the Night Watch. Hals painted several large canvases of militia banquets, now hanging in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem.

I first read the Dutch version of this book, which I found in a bookshop in Haarlem while I was visiting my daughter, who had a flat near the Frans Hals Museum. I enjoyed popping in for half an hour every day so I could spend time getting to know the whole collection, which includes works by many other artists contemporary with Hals.

The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals is freely available in a good English translation. A seamless merging of literary invention and historic fact, it is remarkable, unforgettable novel. A four-page color insert showing some of the paintings referred to by Hals makes these "diaries" all the more realistic and engaging.

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