Haarlem – Been There

The secret of the famous Dutch Masters

Haarlem, capital of the province of North Holland, is also the center of Holland's tulip bulb-growing region and is nicknamed "Bloemenstad" (Flower City). During the age of Dutch exploration, it gave its name to Harlem in what is now New York, formerly New Amsterdam.

Photo by Niels van Kampenhout / Alamy

Haarlem – Been There

The secret of the famous Dutch Masters

What was the secret of the famous Dutch Masters? To find out I travel from Amsterdam to Haarlem, home of one of the greatest Dutch Golden Age painters: Frans Hals. 


Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

In Haarlem, former town of Frans Hals, the water penetrates to the very heart of the city. I cross the Nieuwe Gracht (New Canal) on my walk from the wonderful Art Nouveau station to its center on the bank of the River Spaarne.

Narrow streets end with a glimpse of the masts and funnels of small working boats. A cluster of small buildings clings to each side of the Grote Kerk (Great Church), medieval in their appearance. The church has a soaring whitewashed interior, an ornate organ played by Mozart when he was ten, and Frans Hals’ tomb.

In the nearby Frans Hals Museum, a detailed painting of the church and nearby market by Frans Hals’ pupil Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde dates to 1692 and brings the past vividly into the present. Apart from the odd clothes, and the absence of cars and bicycles, little seems to have changed in nearly four centuries.

Berckheyde was born and died in Haarlem and may have been a pupil of Hals. Both lived during the Dutch Golden Age, when Haarlem was wealthy from textiles, shipyards and beer breweries.

“This wealth helped create an environment where at least 100,000 paintings were produced in Haarlem between 1605 and 1635 alone,” says art historian Marie Hoedemaker. “Frans Hals came to the city as a child and, in a career lasting more than half a century, rarely left it.”

Perhaps the most poignant painting in the museum is the Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House, which dates to 1664 and is one of Hals’ last works. Painting with almost savage economy and unflattering truth, the 84-year-old master allows the character of each woman to live through the centuries.

From a distance, the works look amazingly lifelike but as conventional as their subjects, pillars of the community. A detailed look shows a more spontaneous painting style. “Up close his strokes are almost abstract,” says Marie. “His brushwork is not perfect but it looks perfect and that may be the most remarkable thing about him. Hals did not flatter his subjects but he captured personality and character like no other painter.”

"Officers and Subalterns of the St. George Civic Guard", on display in Haarlem's Frans Hals Museum,...

"Officers and Subalterns of the St. George Civic Guard", on display in Haarlem's Frans Hals Museum, was one of the last of this style of group portrait that Hals painted. It was finished in 1639, a decade before the war with Spain ended, after which the wealthier members of society wished to be known for charitable work rather than military service. Photo by Jurjen Drenth

Jurjen Drenth

Jurjen Drenth

Canon EOS-1DS

Aperture
ƒ/2.8
Exposure
1/30
ISO
800
Focal
28 mm

"Officers and Subalterns of the St. George Civic Guard", on display in Haarlem's Frans Hals Museum, was one of the last of this style of group portrait that Hals painted. It was finished in 1639, a decade before the war with Spain ended, after which the wealthier members of society wished to be known for charitable work rather than military service.