This attractive little painting, which can be dated to about 1650, depicts a boy sitting on a wooden footstool eating his porridge in rapt concentration. The only clues we are given as to the nature of the interior are a plastered wall and a wooden floor. A few objects – a wicker basket, a cooking pot and a lid – fill out the empty space a little and convey a sense of depth in a simple yet effective way. The image has been produced with consummate economy: the figure and objects are painted loosely, each brushstroke applied with unerring boldness. The panel was prepared with a strikingly thin ground, so that in large parts of the image the support glimmers through. The boy’s face appears enveloped in light, creating the effect of a halo. His head is encircled by a narrow border of opaque grey paint; the artist has wiped away most of the adjacent background, probably using his fingers.1 In several places we find subtle gleams of reflected light, including white highlights along the rim of the porringer and the edge of the spoon that enhance the scene’s realism. Local colour accents – such as the striking blue and brownish-yellow hues in the coat-sleeve – enliven the scene.
The same motif had been tackled earlier, in 1636, by Dirck Hals (1591-1656), a younger brother of Frans Hals, whose small painting of a child eating porridge represents the sense of Taste in a series of the five senses, each one being portrayed by a single child (fig. 1).2 Whether Boy eating porridge was ever part of a similar series of paintings is unknown; it is certainly not inconceivable. The panel’s provenance is unfortunately a blank.
Boy eating porridge was acquired as an anonymous work of the Haarlem school. In subject and execution it recalls the work of the famous Haarlem painter Frans Hals (cat. no. 21), in whose portraits we frequently discern the kind of halo effect seen here. Hals was also one of the first Haarlem painters to depict children prominently in his paintings. Thanks to the expertise of Dr P. Biesboer, the scene described here can be linked to two of Frans Hals’s five painter sons: Jan and Reynier. None of the five ever attained the artistic heights exemplified by their father. Paintings by Jan and Reynier in the Frans Hals Museum display similarities of theme and execution with Boy eating porridge. In about 1650 Reynier Hals depicted a similar subject in Girl eating porridge,3 but both the composition and execution of this large painting clearly point to a different hand. In terms of execution, Biesboer sees a distinct resemblance between the work described here and Jan Hals’s Children at play from 1652, although the latter makes a rather primitive impression.4 Jan Hals was trained by his father and worked in his home town from 1648 until his death in 1674. Besides portraits he produced genre pieces, including a scene of a man and a woman in an interior, which is signed in full and resurfaced only recently.5 It is appropriate to exercise some caution regarding the attribution, since the oeuvre of Frans Hals’s five sons has not been researched thoroughly and it is not always easy to distinguish between them. Whatever the case may be, Boy eating porridge is a fine example of the work of the Hals family.6