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I'll never forget seeing Frans Hals's "Laughing Cavalier" for the first time. I was visiting the superb Wallace Collection in London and I knew that this very famous painting was part of the collection, and I was looking forward to viewing it. What I didn't know was how small the painting would be, and I was quite taken aback. Since then I've been really interested in the work of Frans Hals so, although we only had a couple of hours to spend there, I was looking forward to visiting the Frans Hals museum in Haarlem. Investing just over an hour of our brief stay in Haarlem turned out to be a great move because the museum not only contains some wonderful paintings by Hals and some of his contemporaries, it is housed in one of the many 'hofjes' for which Haarlem is noted, and it is a brilliant place to learn more about the history of Haarlem in a way that creates a really joined up overiew of what makes it the place it is WHO WAS FRANS HALS? Frans Hals (1580 or 1581 - 1666) was a Baroque painter working in Haarlem during the Netherland's "Golden Age". His most famous painting is probably 1624's "The Laughing Cavalier" but he was a prolific artist who was much sought after as a portrait painter. He was born in Antwerp but his family fled to Haarlem during the Fall of Antwerp when Frans was just a couple of years old. He lived in Haarlem until his death. Although he trained under another Flemish emigre, Hals actually commenced his career as an art restorer and his own first known works date from around 1611. In 1616 he painted the vast work "The Officers of the Civic Guard of St. George, Haarlem" which is displayed in the Frans Hals Museum, the painting that brought his skill to the attention of Haarlem's wealthy merchants. His work became much sought after and he painted prolifically to meet the demand. He was commissioned to paint portraits of the country's most important and influential citizens and was also in demand as a painter of wedding portraits. However, because he lived to a ripe old age for the time, he was painting so long his style became unfashionable and he became poverty stricken; two years before his death, the council of Haarlem had to grant him an annuity such were the dire straits of his finances. His work is interesting to me because it says so much about the period in which he was painting. His early works are quite colourful and are often quite joyful - the portraits of children in particular show considerable warmth - but the later ones are more sombre. This was partly because of the change among his clientele - he was attracting commissions from some very high status sitters - but also because as time went on and he becamse less popular, he used darker paints - black in particular - because they were much cheaper than the bright colours. Although it is known that Hals was a prolific painter, relatively few of the works are in existence today. Those that are known are almost all portraits and it is thought that Hals painted very few, if any, still life works or landscapes. VISITING THE MUSEUM The Frans Hals Museum is situated in the centre of Haarlem in a fantastic building called the "Oudemannenhuis" - a former almshouse complex for elderly men which was founded in 1609. Haarlem is noted for these almshouses - or 'hofjes' in Dutch - although most were built for women. Each hofje is slightly different but generally they comprise small residential houses or apartments around three sides of a private garden. It was a requirement of the tenancy that the residents would make a weekly collection with a poor box. The hofje was run by a group of regents and there are portraits of the regents and regentesses of some of the Haarlem hofjes on display in the museum. In 2011 the museum is partly closed for renovation work but the assistant at the ticket office explained that the admission price had been reduced to take this into account. Guided tours are available in several languages but have to be arranged in advance. We could have bought a brochure to get more out of our visit but found that the captions were excellent and really enhanced our understanding of the exhibits. As well as the largest collection of Hals's work to be found in one place, there are paintings by his predecessors and contemporaries, as well as a small collection of ceramics and glassware. I wasn't so interested in the paintings by the predecessors of Hals as much of this part of the collection was made up of religious pieces and i was desperate to see the Hals paintings anyway. However, there were quite a few paintings that showed just how old some of Haarlem's most famous buildings are, and how little the city's skyline has changed over the centuries. I also liked the small collection of paintings by Judith Jansdr Leyster, the first female painter working in Haarlem. Of the works that were not painted by Hals, my favourite was one called "Satire of Tulipmania" by Jan Breughel, an artist I love because his paintings are so full of incident. This one is a very funny painting in which he lampoons the 17th century craze for tulips. They had been brought to the Netherlands from Turkey a century earlier and the trade in tulips had brought considerable wealth to Haarlem in particular. In 1635 prices were at their peak; everyone went mad for tulips and speculated wildly. Of course, it couldn't last and two years later someone started a rumour that the bulbs were worthless and everyone tried frantically to sell what they had. In the painting, the "people" are actually monkeys in clothes; one holds a list of prices, another is urinating on some tulips, another is in the stocks. It's a brilliant painting because you spot something new each time you look at it, and because it says a lot about Haarlem at the time it was painted. There was an interesting exhibition of still life pieces by artists such as Willem Claesz Heda and Pieter Claesz that show items of silver and ceramics with fruit and shellfish, for example, that tell us a lot about sixteenth and seventeenth century culture and customs. In one striking painting, cheese and nuts are placed alongside fruit, a reference to the belief that after eating the main course, the stomach should be "closed" by eating acidic fruits, followed by nuts or cheese. The collection of works by Hals concentrates mainly on his epic group portraits. There are several such paintings of members of the Civic Guard, looking resplendent in their black uniforms with red or blue sashes, huge ruffed collars and bearing pikestaffs. Although these were often commissioned works for which the sitters visited Hals's studio, the group portraits don't appear overly "posed" and look to capture a moment in time instead. Often, the various people in the painting visited Hals separately and Hals had an amazing ability to make the individual portraits into a believable group scene. I loved the group portrait of the "Four Regentesses of the Old Mens' Home in Haarlem". It used to be thought that Hals painted their portrait as a way of gaining revenge on the strictness and harshness of the women but it has since been established that he never lived in this hofje. Nevertheless, you certainly get the idea looking at these stern women and the hofje "housemother" that anyone granted the privilege of the charity of the hofje would have demonstrate a very high level of gratitude! I was disappointed that the Hals collection was quite limited in terms of subject and would have liked to have seen more of his marriage portraits. However, I was pleased to have seen the vast civic guard group portraits which are worth paying to see "in the flesh". Unfortunately, due to the renovations, many of the Hals works were not on show. Nor could the garden be enjoyed as access the the exhibition was via a covered walkway erected across the courtyard. Usually it's possble to walk through the courtyard, or even sit a while if the weather is fine. The museum has a small cafe that serves hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, soups and cakes. The museum shop sells a good selection of postcards of many of the paintings in the collection as well as art-related books and other souvenirs. The museum is almost entirely wheelchair accessible, including the toilets. Wheelchairs can be borrowed if necessary. For more details such as opening hours see http://www.franshalsmuseum.com/bezoek IS IT WORTH VISITING? If you are interested in art then a visit to the museum is a must. Although I wasn't interested in all of the work on display, I thought it was brilliant that there was work by other Haarlem artists, particularly because these works say so much about how Haarlem developed into a prosperous merchant city. In this respect, I'd say that the museum should be interesting not just for art lovers, but for anyone wishing to know more about the history of Haarlem. It's also a good way to see inside one of the city's famous almshouse complexes. I learned a lot about Frans Hals and I was impressed by the larger works in particular. This museum is well organised and the captions were relevant and interesting and allowed me to tour the museum unguided. In a couple of rooms there were television screens showing short films about Harlem past and Hals's work; some parts were in English, while others had subtitles; these films were a great idea and much better than having huge amounts of text to read on the walls. We stayed just over an hour but could certainly have stayed longer had we not been short of time. Due to the renovations we paid only Euro4 each, whereas usually admission for adults is Euro10 and this seemed very fair given that so much was out of bounds: that said, what we did see was certainly worth more than Euro4.