Head of a Man Looking up
Old Master Paintings
|Date made:||ca. 1652–1654|
|Medium and support:||oil on oak|
|Dimensions:||64.5 x 46.3 cm with frame: 84.5 × 66 × 5.5 cm|
|Collection:||Old Master Paintings|
Frans Hals was born in Flanders, but lived in Haarlem from his youth. Some sources claim he was for a short time a pupil of the Late Mannerist painter and art theoretician, Carel van Mander. He specialised in portraits, and even his genre paintings of merry musicians, drunken figures and laughing children have a portrait-like character. Although his contemporary reputation derived from large-size conversation pieces made for local militia companies and the superiors of various social institutions, his oeuvre comprises nearly every characteristic type of portrait painting. The casual poses of his models, the apparently spontaneous, expressive gestures of the men and women portrayed, and his specialty, the fluent, “Impressionist” brushwork that has been much appraised since the second half of the nineteenth century, lent his pictures a freshness and liveliness to which very few of his contemporaries came close. He exerted his influence on numerous Haarlem painters.
Hals’ outstanding skills are well illustrated by the Portrait of a Man in the Museum’s Dutch collection, the unidentified model of which wears dark clothing and a hat. The whole personality of the man looking out of the picture radiates self-confidence and resolution. This effect is reinforced by the wide-brimmed hat, a common motif in contemporary Dutch portraiture, expressing authority or high social rank or standing. In the extremely narrow frame of the Budapest portrait, all we see are the man’s upper body, one hand, and the right arm bent at the elbow. This certainly enhances the expressiveness of the image, but in Frans Hals’ portraits, the figures usually have more space around them. Technical examinations of the picture have shown that its unusual format is largely the result of about five centimetres having been cut off the original panel at each side.
There is no doubt about the high quality of the Portrait of a Man, but opinions still vary about the identity of the sitter. In the 1812 and 1820 catalogues of the Esterházy Collection, the painting figured as a self-portrait by Karel Dujardin, known for his Italianate landscapes. Subsequently, it was long regarded as Frans Hals’ self-portrait. Andor Pigler pointed out that the man in the Budapest picture bears a close resemblance to Jan Asselyn, a painter appearing in one of Rembrandt’s engravings, who was called by his contemporaries “Crabbetje”, Little Crab, because of his deformed right hand. Could this painting also represent Asselyn? This hypothesis seems to be supported by the strange and very “discreet” foreshortening and somewhat sketchy rendition of the man’s gloved right hand. Since other Hals-portraits have similar compositional solutions, and a more thorough comparison was made with the Rembrandt engraving, the identification of the model of the Portrait of a Man with Jan Asselyn has recently been questioned by several scholars.
Text: © ISTVÁN NÉMETH