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Frans Hals
 
 
 
 
The Governors of the Old Men's Almshouse at Haarlem



Frans Hals
The Lady-Governors of the Old Men's Almshouse at Haarlem
1664
Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem
 

The governors of hospitals and almshouses were among the most important patrons of the Netherlandish group portrait. Unlike the sitters for paintings of militia companies or archers' guilds, however, these regents and regentesses, as they were called, were not members of traditional professional associations, but the honorary governing bodies of charitable institutions; men and women, usually of aristocratic background, who were appointed by the citv's ruling elite.
Since the late Middle Ages, the care of the aged in towns had become a matter of public concern. The growth in commodity relations and the partly violent expropriation of peasant farmers had led to the lat-ters' rum and consequent migration to towns, where they were exposed to a ruthless system of capitalist exploitation and extortion. Poverty and begging now increased to such an extent that traditional forms of charity, which had existed since the Middle Aees, such as those based on the ideas of Francis of Assisi or Elizabeth of Marburg, no longer sufficed. Following Luther's example, reformers began to put pressure on municipal councils to seek a long-term solution to the problem by setting aside appropriate funds to cover the cost of looking after old people. Wittenberg itself, with its edict of 1521 proclaiming the founding of a "common purse", was exemplary in this respect, and Nuremberg, with its "Rules for the Dispensation of Alms", perhaps even more so. Nuremberg even appointed public servants to care for the needy. In the Netherlands, the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives demanded the endowment of charitable institutions in his book "De subventione pauperum" (On Supporting the Poor).

The mass phenomenon of begging was a source of constant irritation to the burghers and ruling strata of the towns, who found beggars difficult to distinguish from the "traditional" poor. This presented a moral dilemma, since the poor had never been held responsible for their plight. In the Middle Ages, after all, poverty had been accepted as God's will. Soon, however, the ruling strata began to view persons who were suffering hardship, or who were socially marginalised, as lazy or unwilling to work. The upper classes, whose economic interests, based on the principle of wealth accumulation, had led to the widening of the gulf between rich and poor in the first place, thus tended to see the resultant misery as deriving from a congenital ignobility of character in members of the lower classes.
While early sixteenth-century charitable practice had adhered to Martin Luther's dictum "Love serves without regard to reward", increasing penetration of every sphere of human life by the capitalist principles of wages and profit soon undermined ideals of chanty and encouraged demands for the poor to be detained in institutions which would serve their correction. The poorhouses were little more than prisons - sometimes even called so - and were organised according to the principle of centralised manufacture. Their inmates were forced into gruellingly hard labour in return for a mere pittance. Some of the worst working conditions were found in the rasp-houses, where dyeing powder was extracted by rasping logwood. The exploitation of this cheap labour force led to grand profits. Orphanages, or foundling hospitals, and sometimes mental asylums, each with their own regents, or governing bodies, were often found attached to the workhouses. However, there were also charitable institutions offering asylum to those who had fallen on hard times. These included homes of refuge for the ill and aged.

In the sixteenth century, it had been customary for works of art to show the poor in the company of their benefactors - in The Seven Works of Charity, for example, or in the scenes accompanying The Last Judgement. In seventeenth-century Netherlandish portraits of the governors of charitable institutions, however, human misery itself, with few exceptions, was evidently subject to taboo, or at least was banished from sight; an invisible barrier thus existed between "selflessly" or "generously" acting dignitaries on the one hand, and the inmates of institutions on the other. The governors remained aloof, avoiding prejudice to their social status which might derive from being seen in company with those whom the age had already branded as virtually criminal: the company, in other words, of persons entrusted into their care. The most they could bear was the presence of a servant, or a wardress; and even then, the servant's lower status was clearly indicated by their being shown bareheaded. The governors would usually sit for their portraits at one of their regular meetings, and they would have themselves shown keeping the minutes, or counting money.
Frans Hals's pair of large-format group portraits of The Governors and Lady-Governors of the Old Men's Almshouse at Haarlem, painted in 1664, were among the last works commissioned from him. Indeed, he had now become a pensioner himself, receiving, during the last four years of his life, an annual stipend of 200 guilders, awarded by the municipal authorities. Hals executed the portraits in the manner outlined above, at the same time modifying the dominant portrait type: the "regents and regentesses" were no longer placed in a narrative context, depicted carrying out certain typical forms of activity. This had been a compositional achievement of the first half of the century, to whose attainment Hals himself had greatly contributed. Here, however, he showed the sitters in full-face view: plain, rather formal figures, without the faintest hint of swagger. In deference to the sitters' wishes, each of whom paid the artist individually, Hals retained the principle of showing their faces separately. On the other hand, a new quality now entered his work via an unconventional, pre-Impressionist mode of painting: the direct, spontaneous application of paint to the ground ("alia prima"), with its tendency to favour more open forms.

 

Frans Hals
The Lady-Governors of the Old Men's
Almshouse at Haarlem
(detail)

Frans Hals
The Lady-Governors of the Old Men's
Almshouse at Haarlem
(detail)



Scholars have frequently suggested that these structural innovations - appearing as they do to anticipate the (aesthetic) rebelliousness of a later avant-garde — must be seen in conjunction with Hals's allegedly critical attitude towards the governors and lady-governors of the almshouse. It has been said, for example, that the governor whose hat sits askew was given to drunkenness, or to the abuse of drugs, and that Hals wanted to poke fun at him. However, it is demonstrable that the man was actually suffering from facial palsy. It is therefore misleading to indulge this late nineteenth-century cliche by attributing to Hals the motive of revenge for ill-treatment he is reputed to have endured at the hands of his patrons.
As usual in genre portraits of "regents and regentesses", the figures in both paintings are shown against a dark background. On the wall behind the lady-governors is a landscape painting. This probably represents a "paysage moralise", a morally significant landscape, whose purpose is to provide a "clavis interpretandi", a key to understanding the work: the narrow path winding upwards into the mountains may be an allusion to the "path of virtue", a symbol often encountered in Renaissance art and "emblem books". If so, it may indicate what kind of behaviour was expected of the inmates by the lady-governors.

Norbert Schneider




The Governors of the Old Men's Almshouse at Haarlem
1664
Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem

 
 
 
 

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