Portrait of Pieter Jacobsz Olycan
Frans Hals, Dutch 1585-1666
SN 251. Oil on Canvas 1639


by Robert Anderson.

Frans Hals is considered to be the third master of the Dutch School along with Rembrandt and Vermeer. He was the first great portraitist of 17th century Holland. His first success was at age thirty six (36) with a painting entitled The Banquet of the Officers of the St. Joris' Shooting

Guild. The Guild were a group of volunteers who served as communal militia. Each head in the group was an individual portrait; each one a masterpiece.

His career peaked during the 1630's and 1640's as a portrait painter. In the 1630's he abandoned early bright colors for a monochrome effect and his portraits became more unified and simple, with poses more frontal. By the 1640's he painted portraits with a more aristocratic air but with less ostentatious poses. Most of his backgrounds were now dark and the clothing black. It is believed that he painted from the model, very quickly and with a limited palette. The immediacy and brilliance of his portraits brought sitters to life - they were said to "breathe". His innovative loose brushstrokes to depict light on form were seen by art critics of the 18th and early 19th centuries to be lazy and unfinished and his work was almost forgotten for two centuries. With the rise of "Realism" and "Impressionism" he has been hailed as a painter before his time.

His personal life was pretty much of a disaster. Nothing about him was attractive except that he was a great painter and a jolly soul. He was a drunkard and a wife beater. His first wife died in 1617 and he married again five months later to Lysbeth Reyniers who bore him ten (10) children - the first born five (5) days before their marriage. One son ended in the insane asylum and a daughter was sent to the workhouse. Hals himself was destitute by 1652 and died a pauper in 1666. His last great masterpiece was painted at this time (1664) entitled The Women Regents of the Old Men's Home in Haarlem.

While some in the past have decried his lack of range, ie. no religious pictures, landscapes or nudes, he is considered today as the most brilliant executant of portraits the world has seen.

Pieter Jacobz Olycan (1572-1658) was one of Haarlem's leading citizens. He was a wealthy brewer who also served the city as mayor and was a member of the States General, the governing body of Holland. Hals painted a number of portraits of the Olycan family including one of the sitter's wife Maritge Vooght Claesdr, which originally hung as a pendant of this portrait and which now hangs in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Olycan personifies and conveys the vitality of that era of Dutch history when Holland rose to become a mighty commercial and naval power.

This painting, a pendant of a portrait of the sitters wife, was cut down slightly at both the sides and at the top or bottom as proved by the measurements of the companion piece and the fact that the coat-of-arms in the upper right corner is only partially visible. In spite of this, the portrait is one of Hals' most imposing single portraits - it shows powerful characterization - and was counted by Valentiner as "among the most imposing and impressive of the master's works of the period around 1640". Olycan is placed in an aristocratic, frontal pose, typical of Hals' painting at this point in his career. He appears as a proud and successful statesman / businessman, who personifies the affluence and strength of Holland at this point in it's history.

While the portrait is painted with a limited number of colors, Hals produced an almost infinite number of nuances within the seemingly restricted range. It had been said that Hals' palette contained a hundred different blacks. The face has the broad, rapid brushwork which invests Olycan with a lifelike spontaneity, creating the illusion that the expression playing across his features has been captured in an instant. It seems that Olycan is speaking to us. The sense of exchange with the viewer, that lies at the heart of baroque portraiture, is certainly evident in this portrait.

The purchase of the portrait was a coup for Ringling in that Lord Duveen, the internationally known art dealer and collector, tried unsuccessfully to buy it from him for several times the amount he had paid for it.

Historical Context:
The period in which Hals painted was the so called Golden Age of the Dutch Republic. It was a time of war with Spain during which the Dutch accomplished significant naval victories culminating in the Battle of the Downs when an entire Spanish fleet was sunk, disabled or captured. With each victory the Dutch merchants turned money into ships, for every victory on the sea expanded trade. In 1648 the Treaty of Westphalia ended the "Eighty Years War" in the Netherlands and freedom of trade (and wealth) was conceded to Dutch merchantmen in the East and West Indies.