London Lantern

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Frans Hals Masterpiece to be Sold at Sotheby's

17/06/2008, By

Reader Rating: 2.8 from 1295 votes

On Wednesday, July 9th, Sotheby’s London will offer for sale one of the most remarkable portraits remaining in private hands by Frans Hals (c1580 – 1666), who was, with Rembrandt and Vermeer, one of the three greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. From the moment it was painted in the 1630s until the early 20th century (when it was in the celebrated Rothschild Collection), the painting was always considered a major, authentic work by Hals.

Thereafter, it was demoted, and was thought to be a copy of another version of the portrait (today hanging in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels). After 1963, it disappeared entirely. Rediscovered after nearly half a century, the painting has now been carefully cleaned and researched, and the relationship between the two portraits has been reversed: this powerful, bravura portrait of Haarlem merchant Willem van Heythuysen has reclaimed its rightful place in the oeuvre of Frans Hals and will be offered for sale in July with an estimate of £3-5 million.

Its whereabouts unknown for decades, Hals's masterpiece re-emerged – dirty and unrecognised - in the catalogue for a sale at Kinsky auction house in Vienna in October 2004. Described as “studio of Frans Hals”, the painting nonetheless caught the attention of a certain connoisseur with a good eye. He was intrigued by what he saw and, though unsure as to whether or not the picture was genuine, trusted his instincts and raised his hand for the final bid of €440,000.

Pleased with his purchase but unsure how to clean or research the work the further, the new owner sought the advice of George Wachter, Co-Chairman Worldwide of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings department, who recognized its overwhelming quality immediately. He left the picture with Mr. Wachter in New York, and after careful thought, Mr. Wachter decided to have the picture cleaned by expert conservator - and former chief conservator a the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – Martin Bijl.

As Mr Bijl gradually removed the thick layers of surface varnish, he became increasingly aware that the painting beneath was of marvelous quality. Further work on the painting revealed a number of pentimenti – all of which seemed to point to the picture’s authenticity: the hat had been moved a little to the left, and one of the hands had also moved – slight modifications which Hals must have made as he painted in order to capture exactly the tension in the figure’s pose. Chemical analysis also showed that the materials used corresponded exactly with those most often used by Hals.

While still in Bijl’s studio, the picture was shown to a number of prominent figures in the field of Hals scholarship – all of whom concurred that the painting must be an original composition by the artist. Their connoisseur’s view was given strong documentary support by the discovery made earlier by one of them: Pieter Biesboer of the Frans Halsmuseum in Haarlem; that the Brussels version was the subject of a payment to Frans Hals by a relative of Heythuysen in August 1653, almost two decades after Hals painted this rediscovered picture, and three years after Heythuysen’s death. Dendrochronology has shown that the Brussels painting cannot have been painted earlier than about 1650, and supports the dating of this rediscovered picture to the mid 1630s.

Having thus come to the attention of the leading specialists, the painting was included in the major exhibition in the Autumn of 2007 (at the National Gallery, London and the Mauritshuis in The Hague) - Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. In the catalogue which accompanied the exhibition, the picture was – for the first time in a century – finally presented again as the primary version of Hals’ celebrated portrait of van Heythuysen.

In July 2008, just four years after the lost “copy” was sold in Vienna, Hals’ original composition will once again emerge onto the market, this time with its authorship and importance fully understood. Its appearance at auction is set to arouse much excitement, following, as it does, fast on the heels of the exceptional price achieved for another important (but smaller) Hals portrait at Sotheby’s in July 07. (Portrait of Samuel Ampzing, sold for £4,668,500, est: 800,000-1,200,000.). Both portraits were painted within five years of each other.

Willem van Heythuysen made his fortune in Haarlem’s rapidly expanding textile industry. He had been painted by Frans Hals a few years earlier, in a full length portrait now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. A comparison between the two shows us how rapidly Hals was developing as a painter – the Munich picture is a grand example of Hals swagger but static portrait style of the late 1620s, while this picture is much more informal and direct.

George Gordon, Co-Chairman of Sotheby's Old Master Paintings Worldwide, said, “Not only does this work have an illustrious and intriguing history – it is also a work of seminal importance in the history of Dutch Golden Age portraiture. More direct and informal than almost any other work of the period, Hals’ portrait of Van Heythuysen is a distillation of everything that makes Hals such a revered and distinctive artist. The tension conveyed by the tipping chair and the whip held in a bow – all painted with a few swift strokes of the brush – and Van Heythuysen’s nonchalant and informal pose make this one of Hals’ most arresting and memorable pictures – when we think of a Frans Hals bravo, we think as likely as not of this image. Its fluidity, vitality and freedom are exactly the qualities that 19th-century artists such as Manet so admired in Hals, and that we admire today in much the same way..”

Wednesday July 9th
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London W1A 2AA
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