Art Thoughts, Week 24 -- Hals and Mortality

(Dear readers; this essay was to appear Friday afternoon; unfortunately the internet was down all that day, so you're getting it late. This week will supply another installment however.)

Dutch Burgher, Frans Hals, Dutch (c. 1580—1666), 1643, oil on canvas, BF 262.

Eyes are difficult to paint accurately; take it from someone who has tried, and often failed. The eyes (and even more so the eye socket) have so many thin strands of varied strata; such numerous tone and color changes – not to mention being known as “windows to the soul” – that they are likely the hardest thing on a human to paint. Nevertheless, Hals has painted a pair of extremely engaging eyes; dark eyes that are at turn inviting, comforting, imploring.

The eyes are also where the viewer’s eyes are first drawn to in a portrait. Any divergence from this tendency indicates a Herculean effort on the portrait painter’s part – it’s just too natural. Our own primary mode of gathering information is highly magnetized towards portrayals of another’s same portals. Depending on the met gaze’s intensity, focus, aloofness or even intimidation, we may quickly turn away, but the eye is still an enormous draw in art, especially in portraits.

And this is a portrait – but of whom exactly has been lost. Quite possibly, Hals was paid by this Dutch burgher (Dutch citizen) to have his portrait done. Even though we’ve lost his name, there are many more things (and most of them more important) to be learned about him. After the eyes, other features become noticeable: the gently rakish angle of his hat sitting on a slightly tilted head, and how that angle plays with his emerging arm below; the coarse, painterly way Hals has depicted his beard hairs and hands like two little patches of Lucian Freud; the delicate lay of his gauzy collar. All this is interesting, and could command a separate essay. But the most obvious, and what exists as a parallel element to the intensity of his eyes, is his gold pocket watch. These two seem to be sidling up into a joint message. What of the imploring in his eyes and face may be found in the watch? What of the open and obviously-readable watch is related to his eyes?

There is a tradition in the painting of portraits called momento mori, where an object or element in the painting shares the message of sure mortality; of what Franklin called the only sure thing besides taxation. Eventually, the burgher might be saying to us, we all will die, you included; in fact, I’ve gone on before and want you to think seriously about this fact, reforming your life if necessary. Accordingly, in Pennsylvania German culture, the idea takes form in a more emboldening phrase: “O edel Herz, bedenk dein End” (O noble heart, consider your end).

Momento mori usually takes shape in one of several iconic objects: a candle; skull; wilting flower; clock and so on. Here the choice is interesting – a gold watch, such as only the wealthy could have afforded. With the intricacy and skill involved in hand-making such a diminutive timepiece, it’s clear that this burgher was a man of means. This risks clouding our reception of his message. Is he warning us of the deluding snare that riches may become, or is this blatant ostentatiousness clothed in a false morality? In other words, is he really concerned, or just showing off? Perhaps we should give his eyes the benefit of the doubt, and not be tempted to ascribe the gold watch too much persuasive clout. Let’s postulate the burgher had overcome the sirens of wealth in his lifetime, and is now reaching out through the fog with clarity; inviting us to live Socrate’s “considered life”.

Dayton  – (Wednesday, 30 July, 2008)  

Tim, you really ought to think about trying to seek an outlet for publishing these things in some kind of coffee table book or whatnot. They are really good! I enjoy them always! Talk to the Barnes about it... would make a great gift shop item (if they have a gift shop)...

GIERSCHICK  – (Tuesday, 05 August, 2008)  

Thanks as always Dayton; this idea has actually been floating around in my head. I'll investigate possible avenues soon; if you have any immediate ideas, please forward them.

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