The man shown in this small oval portrait on copper, which can easily be held in the hand, has remained anonymous. In the past, the sitter has been identified as an officer,1 but this is clearly not the case, as his attire is that of a fashionable patrician. He wears a black cloak draped over a doublet of light, probably silver-coloured, satin,2 with slashed sleeves that reveal the white linen shirt underneath. The front, too, appears to be slashed. Plain fabrics decorated with slashing, a technique inspired by the French, came into vogue in the Netherlands in the late 1620s.3 By the 1630s, however, the falling ruff he sports had already gone out of fashion with the younger generation.4 This allows us to date the portrait to the years 1627-1630.
The painting technique is clearly related to that of Frans Hals (1581/85-1666), who not only executed life-size portraits but also small-format likenesses. Hals painted more than 35 such miniature portraits – three of them on copper – which were generally used as the basis for prints.5 More than half were eventually engraved, and there are also prints after portraits that have now been lost. It seems likely that this painting, too, was intended as a design for a print, although no such work has ever been found. On the other hand, these tiny images were not destined exclusively for the use of printmakers, but were also admired as precious objects in themselves.6
Interestingly, our painter – like Hals himself – seems to have been uninterested in the technical possibilities offered by the copper support, whose smooth surface allows the artist to depict even the most minute detail.7 The brushwork is broad and loose, particularly in the rendering of the clothing. The technique is clearly inspired by Hals, but lacks his precision, and this makes some of the details difficult to decipher. In the sleeve, for example, it is impossible to tell which strokes are meant to represent the doublet and which the linen shirt. The attribution to Frans Hals, first doubted by W.R. Valentiner in his monograph on the artist published in 1923, has now been conclusively rejected.8
Still, the painter must be sought in Hals’s immediate circle. At the time, he was Haarlem’s most important portraitist and the head of a large workshop. One possibility is his younger brother, Dirck (1591-1656), most famous for his genre paintings. Only a single portrait by him is known, a signed likeness of a woman dated 1620, also painted on copper (fig. 1).9 This work, however, has no real relationship to the picture discussed here. A series of oil sketches on paper by Dirck dating to the 1620s exhibit a looser style than that employed in his paintings.10 The technique used for these figure studies is closer to that of his famous brother, but the accuracy of the brushwork makes them quite unlike this portrait of a man. The attribution to Dirck Hals is therefore unconvincing.
There is a slightly greater affinity with the work of the Haarlem genre painter Judith Leyster (cat. no. 34), who may have spent some time in Hals’s studio around 1630.11 The modelling of the face, with its transparent and opaque areas that blend into one another, and the short brushstrokes used to define the contours, are somewhat comparable, for example, to the woman in Man offering money to a young woman of 1631 (fig. 2).12 Moreover, Leyster generally used a loose and often inadequate technique for rendering clothing that is reminiscent of the portrait described here.13 Nonetheless, the links are too weak to result in a firm attribution to Leyster, by whom – incidentally – only one undisputed portrait is known (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem).14 For the time being, then, the conclusion must simply be that this charming portrait was painted under the direct influence of Hals, perhaps by a member of his workshop.