Critics Rave Over Frans Hals at London’s National Gallery, a Celebration of Laughter and Light

The curators argue that he is on a level with household names like Rembrandt and Vermeer.

Frans Hals, Family Group in a Landscape (about 1645–8), © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

With his creamy brushstrokes and spirited subjects, painter Frans Hals is perhaps the least-well-known of the Dutch Masters, a group that also counts household names Rembrandt and Vermeer. Yet an eponymous new show at the National Gallery in London makes a case to re-examine his oeuvre with fresh eyes, and think about why his work was a favorite of Manet and Van Gogh.

“Hals was one of the most sought-after painters of his generation,” the National Gallery says on the show’s website. “A gifted artist whose deft brushwork was unparalleled, he built his reputation on a new style of portrait — highly unusual in his time — that showed relaxed, lively sitters, often smiling, and even laughing.”

The first major Hals retrospective in some 30 years, bringing together about 50 of his pieces, has been tickling critics, especially thanks to the merry dispositions of many of the sitters — a specialty of the artist’s, and one that distinguishes him from most of his contemporaries, who depicted their sitters in much more serious moods. The Financial Times raved that it’s “superb” and “swaggering,” while the Guardian called it “joyful.” (By contrast, the Observer called it “boring” and “lifeless.”)

Frans Hals, Catharina Hooft and her Nurse (about 1620)

Frans Hals, Catharina Hooft and her Nurse (about 1620), © Photo Scala, Florence / bpk, Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin. Photo: Jörg P. Anders.

“Make your way round it – there are some 50 works on display – and once you’ve lifted your jaw from the ground, you will wonder why Hals has for so long played second fiddle (and, sometimes, not even that) to contemporaries such as Rembrandt and Velázquez,” says Rachel Cooke in the Guardian. “It may strike you as the great art mystery of our age.”

“This is our chance to reintroduce him to a larger public,” Bart Cornelis, who collaborated with a colleague from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum on the show, told the New York Times. “We thought it was high time that the artist gets his proper due. He is on a level as a portrait painter with Rembrandt and with Velazquez, and he has that important a place in the history of Western painting.”

See more paintings from the exhibition below.

Frans Hals is on display at The National Gallery, London, through January 2024.

Frans Hals, The Lute Player (about 1623), © Musée du Louvre, Paris, Department of Paintings

Frans Hals, The Lute Player (about 1623), © Musée du Louvre, Paris, Department of Paintings.

Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, (1624), © Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London

Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier (1624), © Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London.

Frans Hals The Merry Lute Player, about 1625-30

Frans Hals, The Merry Lute Player (about 1624–8), Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London Corporation. © Harold Samuel Collection, Mansion House, City of London.

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