Frans Hals Buffoon Playing a Lute
Frans Hals' 1624 painting Buffoon Playing a Lute is both a tipsy moment of joviality and a small lighthearted interlude between centuries of austere high-mindedness. First and foremost a painter of the people, Hals' tavern scenes, many of which were painted around the same time as this painting, are startling glimpses into the everyday world of the Dutch Golden Age, allowing the contemporary viewer a rare opportunity to view the pleasures and the pastimes of a world long departed. Less known than his contemporaries Rembrandt and Vermeer, Hals was greatly admired in his day, and was practically a local celebrity in his city of Haarlem. His depictions of musicians, hunters, drunkards, waitresses, and ambitious local gentleman are most often gleeful portraits of their sitters and at the same time valuable reflections of how the seventeenth century Netherlands saw itself.
Frans Hals' portraits exemplify the art of genre painting; his loose and carefree characters are those he actually encountered on the streets or in the pub, managing to represent them faithfully through an intimate knowledge of emergent humanism and rationalism, and articulating within the frame a shared base of experience from which all men can draw. Throughout his oeuvre one can sense a fascination with laughter. One of the most difficult facial expressions to capture in portrait, Hals' honed it to perfection. His characters do not grin or grimace, they laugh with whole-hearted intensity, with both comedy and tragedy. A painter of temporal pleasures, Hals' Buffoon Playing a Lute is a masterpiece of experiential joy, basking in a profound knowledge of its subject and sound.
Lightly strumming on the lute, the young man seems to be utterly at home in his environment. Appearing to be in the process of drawing breath, his smile could perhaps be mistaken for making the shape of the next word in the song. From around 1620 it became common to paint figures in portrait from the waist up, usually as allegorical or symbolic vessels of a higher meaning. His canvases quickly became popular in Haarlem, with countless commissions flooding in across the whole gamut of society. Due to the enigmatic examples that have come down through the centuries, Frans Hals was largely responsible for putting Dutch portraiture on the map, allowing the more esteemed figures of Rembrandt and Vermeer to find their way into the highest canon of western painting. Yet Hals Buffoon Playing a Lute is no chocolate-box image – it is a stolen glimpse of the joy of a musician enacting his temporal craft, all of this almost four centuries ago.
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