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The Portraitist

Frans Hals and His World

A biography of the great portraitist Frans Hals that takes the reader into the turbulent world of the Dutch Golden Age. 
Frans Hals was one of the greatest portrait painters in history, and his style transformed ideas and expectations about what portraiture can do and what a painting should look like.
Hals was a member of the great trifecta of Dutch Baroque painters alongside Rembrandt and Vermeer, and he was the portraitist of choice for entrepreneurs, merchants, professionals, theologians, intellectuals, militiamen, and even his fellow artists in the Dutch Golden Age. His works, with their visible brush strokes and bold execution, lacked the fine detail and smooth finish common among his peers, and some dismissed his works as sloppy and unfinished. But for others, they were fresh and exciting, filled with a sense of the sitter’s animated presence captured with energy and immediacy.
Steven Nadler gives us the first full-length biography of Hals in many years and offers a view into seventeenth-century Haarlem and this culturally rich era of the Dutch Republic. He tells the story not only of Hals’s life, but also of the artistic, social, political, and religious worlds in which he lived and worked.

360 pages | 21 color plates, 61 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Art: Art--Biography, European Art

Biography and Letters

History: European History


"Little is known about the Dutch painter Frans Hals: no letters or diaries survive, and the only contemporary documents are unrevealing. But Nadler manages to construct a satisfying quasi-biography by using the milieu of seventeenth-century Haarlem. . . . Though Hals has long been overshadowed by his contemporary Rembrandt, Nadler demonstrates why his peers held him to be 'the modern painter par excellence.'"

New Yorker

“Hals may have become famous for his lifelike portraits, but the only way to depict his own life, Nadler suggests in The Portraitist, is to paint a picture of the social world in which he was embedded. As Nadler acknowledges, this is a book whose subject ‘all too often . . . disappear[s] from view.’”

New York Review of Books

"Nadler laments the absence of biographical material about Hals, but does a wonderful job of bringing the social context of his art to life in intricate and lively detail. In so doing, he brings this incomparable artist to life as well."

Literary Review

Named one of the best books of 2022.

New Yorker


Ian Buruma | Times Literary Supplement

"In The Portraitist, [Nadler] closes in on his subject, as it were. By sketching the artistic, social, political and religious milieus and the elite subjects who came to Hals for portraits and civic guard pieces, Nadler sketches a sharp picture of the politically turbulent first half of the seventeenth century and Hals’ position therein. This results in a quasi-biography which brings Hals to life in a refined way."

NRC Handelsblad

"Nadler’s biography of Frans Hals discusses the life and legacy of the Dutch 17th-century painter against the backdrop of his thriving adopted city of Haarlem, delving into the artistic, social, political, and religious worlds of the time."

The Art Newspaper

"Framed by the religious upheavals of the era, situated solidly in the art world of the Dutch Republic, and defining Hals’ accomplishments, Nadler’s accessible and convincing portrait presents a politically pliant and religiously ambiguous man with loose narrative brushstrokes similar to those used by the genius himself."


“Nadler has made 17th-century Holland his own special province. This polymath historian of philosophy has already built onto his expertise about Spinoza and Descartes with truly interdisciplinary studies, including Rembrandt’s Jews and Menasseh Ben Israel. Now he makes his own portrait of Rembrandt’s contemporary, Frans Hals, and his Haarlem society. Nadler’s deep research provides the first thorough biography of Hals, the painter who for half a century boldly fashioned lively likenesses of his fellow citizens onto his canvases.”

Larry Silver, author of Rembrandt’s Holland

“This welcome new book on Frans Hals situates the artist, his patrons, and his city in a broader perspective than any previous study. We learn about circumstances in his life and milieu that were surely of influence on Hals’s paintings. Much to our benefit, Nadler delves into matters that we tend to take for granted.”

Gary Schwartz, author of Rembrandt’s Universe

“Nadler has masterfully brought Frans Hals to life much as this remarkable seventeenth-century Haarlem artist animated sitters in his portrait paintings. Nadler’s engaging narrative draws the reader close to the artist and captures the essence of his distinctive manner of painting. He introduces us to Hals’s family, enumerates Hals’s financial woes, and assesses the personalities of his sitters, among them merchants, ministers, officers in militia companies, and directors of charitable institutions. Seamlessly fusing these narratives, Nadler evokes the ambiance of Haarlem’s rich and varied culture, but he also explores how broader political and religious developments in the Dutch Republic impacted Hals throughout his career.”

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., author of Clouds, Ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Fund Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Exile
2. Haarlem
3. Master Painter
4. Citizen Hals
5. In a Rough Manner
6. “Very Boldly Done after Life”
7. Debts and Disputes
8. Pandemics
9. “A Pleasing, Good and Sincere Peace”
10. Denouement


A deal is a deal, or so thought the officers of the Saint George civic guard company of Amsterdam’s District 11. They wanted a portrait of themselves to commemorate their service to the city, as was customary. It had to be dignified, reflecting their virtues as brave and responsible citizens, but without being stuffy and formal, like the old civic guard portraits. In those earlier group paintings, everyone appeared in the same stiff pose, and they all looked so much alike it was hard to tell one person from another. No, these leading men of the great city of Amsterdam wanted something lively and colorful to hang in their headquarters—something modern.

Ordinarily, Amsterdam civic guards hired Amsterdam painters for such an important commission. The Saint George officers, however, broke with tradition. They went beyond the city limits and sought out a celebrated master painter from Haarlem. The terms of the agreement were clear: the artist was to come to Amsterdam on a regular basis, and the sixteen guardsmen would take turns posing for him in a borrowed studio. He was to be paid sixty guilders per figure.

Everything should have gone smoothly. Travel from Haarlem to Amsterdam was relatively easy now that there was a canal between the two cities. The painter could take a barge or go by land along the tow path. Overnight stays in Amsterdam would be necessary, but not too much of an inconvenience. Moreover, this was an experienced painter of civic guard portraits; he had already completed three of them for Haarlem companies and was about to start work on his fourth. He could give the Amsterdam militiamen just what they were looking for, since what they were looking for was just what they had seen in his paintings.

In the end, though, it did not work out well. Things took a bad turn when, after a number of sessions in Amsterdam and making good progress on the large canvas, the painter suddenly stopped coming to the city. He refused to leave his Haarlem home and studio. It was too much trouble, he complained, and his lodgings in Amsterdam were costing him a lot of money for which he was not getting reimbursed. If they wanted the painting finished, they would have to come to him.

That was certainly not the arrangement, the officers argued as they filed the first of several legal complaints against him. He could not possibly expect all of them to travel to Haarlem. Come to Amsterdam and finish the painting, they demanded, or they would have another artist finish it. Still hopeful that they could persuade the painter to resume his work, they sweetened the pot and offered him an additional six guilders per figure.
By 1637, four years after the commission, negotiations had broken down completely. Much to the dismay of the Amsterdam guardsmen, Frans Hals would not budge. He was leaving more than a thousand guilders on the table, a significant amount of money for any seventeenth-century artist but especially for a man with financial problems. But he could not afford to be away from Haarlem so often, or so he said—he had apprentices to supervise, other projects to attend to, and a family to care for. He called their bluff. Let someone else finish the damn painting.

It was not the first time that a brilliant but stubborn and irascible artist had aggravated a client—Michelangelo famously caused splitting headaches for the popes he served (and vice versa)—nor would it be the last; Rembrandt, a contemporary of Hals, was a difficult character, and Picasso was best avoided when he was in “one of his moods.” We do not know how typical such behavior was for Hals. But one thing is certain: never again would a commission from an Amsterdam civic guard company come his way. This book offers a portrait of one of the greatest portrait painters in history. The name of Frans Hals may not be as familiar as other marquee names of early modern art, especially the outstanding portraitists of the seventeenth century: Velázquez, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt. And yet, those who have seen Hals’s work in museums or in art history books will immediately recognize his style. Whether or not they know of Hals, they know “Hals”—that rough, loose brushwork, not unlike what we find in later Impressionist paintings, that when viewed up close seems like nothing but abstract daubings, but when seen from a distance so beautifully captures the well-to- do citizens of the Dutch “Golden Age.”

It is a style like none other in the period. Rembrandt, of course, put his own mark on portraiture with a painterly manner that grew coarser over the years. One contemporary critic—the painter Gérard de Lairesse, whose portrait Rembrandt did late in his own life—complained that the paint in Rembrandt’s works “runs down the piece like shit [drek].” Hals and Rembrandt were likely working side by side in the same Amsterdam workshop for a brief time, and no doubt Rembrandt was impressed by what Hals, his elder by almost twenty years, was doing with paint on his panels and canvases. But there is no mistaking a Hals for a Rembrandt. Hals may have painted in what was by then a well-established tradition, but he had an approach to rendering sitters that was all his own.

Over the course of a long career, more than fifty years as a master konstschilder (fine art painter), Hals changed people’s ideas and expectations as to what portraiture can do—indeed, what a painting should look like. A portrait by Hals, with its visible brushstrokes and bold execution, might lack fine detail and a smooth finish, but it more than made up for this with a sense of the sitter’s animated presence, captured with unprecedented energy and immediacy. Some dismissed his works as “sloppy” and “unfinished.” For others, they were fresh and cutting-edge. Connoisseurs or collectors—the Dutch called them liefhebbers; the term, derived from the word for love and used for art lovers generally, could also be translated as “amateur” (which comes from the Latin amator, lover) but without the pejorative sense (in contrast with “expert”) it often carries today—sought him out for portraits that they could proudly hang on the walls of their homes and boardrooms and impress visitors with their cultivated taste. To his contemporaries, in Haarlem and beyond, Hals was, for several decades at least, the modern painter par excellence.

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