When we think of Dutch masters, we unfortunately picture cigars. Only the more artistic amongst us would call to mind names like Frans Hals or Rembrandt van Rijn. The really erudite might add the names Jan Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch, Jacob van Ruisdael, or Meindert Hobbema. The list of great Dutch master painters goes on and on. Art historians have argued for years as to the reason for this flowering of sixteenth and seventeenth century art, such as the booming Dutch economy of the time or the special atmospheric conditions attributed to the ever-present light and water of this below-sea-level landscape of windmills and tulips. Others have simplified the equation, reducing it to merely the hard work of an intelligent, industrious people. Probably all of these are factors.
The earliest of a long line of exceptional Dutch painters was Frans Hals. He was born near Antwerp in 1580 where he began his art instruction before moving on to Haarlem and studying under Karel van Mander, often described as the Vasari of the Dutch school. Hals began painting at a time when artists were held in not much higher regard than a tinsmith, a cobbler, a jeweller, or a bookbinder. It was merely a trade. There was a common price for paintings of various sizes and the ever-thrifty Dutch were not in the habit of paying one guilder more than the going rate. If one worked hard, lived modestly, and saved his money, then, as now, an artist could expect a comfortable retirement in his old age.
Alas, Hals did none of these. First of all he had ten children which, even then, was enough to tax the resources of even the most industrious tradesman. Second, he liked to live well. When he had money, he spent it, and when he didnít, he borrowed. Add to this the fact that he was not in the habit of paying his bills on the first of the month, every month. In Calvinist Holland, this was a crime tantamount to murder or arson. After a lifetime of hard work, at the age of 72, his creditors lost patience with him. He was forced to sell everything he had, which wasn't much--one table, one chest, three mattresses, and a few old blankets. However the Burgomaster and the Alderman were not without some compassion. They provided him with his rent and heat, and on his 84th birthday, gave him an annual civic pension of 200 guilders. To show his gratitude, Hals continued to paint right up to his death, in 1666 at the age of 86. Some of his last works (referred to as the Regent pieces) are considered his most touching.