Demo Site

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Sint Bavo Kerk in Haarlem on the Grote Markt, today, and as represented by the painter Gerrit Berkheyde in 1674.




The three great painters of the Dutch Golden Age succeed each other in such a way as to define the three periods of its history. Frans Hals (1583-1666), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), and Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), each of them characterizes a unique phase in that Golden Age: the forthright rebelliousness of Hals, the classic monumentality of Rembrandt, and the soft and balanced maturity and refinement of Vermeer. But the proximity of their deaths, all within nine years of one another, is a symbolic foreshortening of the Golden Age, and an illustration of its relative brevity. That brief moment in the cultural history of the northern Netherlands, illuminated by its painters against the dark background of the religious war against Spanish Catholic hegemony, as well as against the dark background of its own Calvinistic faith, can be said to begin in the city of Haarlem because of the paintings of Frans Hals, its native son. Haarlem is the city of Frans Hals, and Hals is the painter of Haarlem. To visit Haarlem and know it, it is necessary to visit the Frans Hals museum in the Old Men's Asylum, the Oudemannenhuis (Old Men's Alms House) on the Groot Heiligland Street.

Frans Hans Museum in Haarlem

Hals is buried in the floor of the choir of the old Cathedral of Haarlem, known as the Sint Bavo Kerk. It was said that he had lived his old age, poor and forgotten, at the old men's asylum on the Heiligland street, but that has now been refuted. The point was made because of his two great paintings of the governors and governesses (the Regenten and Regentessen) of the Asylum, painted in 1664, both works of his old age. In these paintings, the sitters appear in a less than favorable light. There is a horrid spitefulness, a meanness and callousness in some of their features, that was seen traditionally as the representation of the brutal coldness of Calvinism in its treatment of the poor, the aged, the disadvantaged. The hands of the Regentessen in the far left and far right of their common portrait look like a hammer and sickle, the hand of the woman on the right seeming to fall relentlessly as a guillotine on her black skirt. The third governess from the left has a look of skeletal severity. And the Regents, they are more bland and incompetent than cruel, but equally indifferent to their mission.

It is impossible for us to say today whether these harsh judgments on the governors and governesses of the Asylum are at all justified. Nor is it really possible to judge whether the likenesses are exaggerated to make a point, or whether they are realistic representations of the sitters. Perhaps the portraits judge an entire age, an entire attitude towards its humanity. The provisions for the aged poor were precarious. The Old Men's Asylum was a home for elderly men which was founded in 1609. The residential rooms were situated around a courtyard, which is still there, and each of the thirty tiny little houses was inhabited by two men. To be eligible for living there the men had to be at least sixty years old, Haarlem residents with no criminal record, and single. They were required to bring their own household goods listed as a bed, a chair with a cushion, a tin chamberpot, three blankets, six good shirts and six nightcaps. They were locked in, each night, at eight o'clock in the summer and at seven in the winter. They had to make a weekly collection with a poor-box. A sculpture of such a man, holding this poor-box, can be seen in the entrance hall of the museum.

This dreary culture co-existed with great prosperity and affluence of the better-off citizens, among whom were the governors and governesses of the Asylum. The wealth of the city's bourgeoisie had bred a defiant attitude toward the foreign rule of the Habsburgs and toward the religion of Rome. Haarlem was besieged by the Spanish army in late 1572. The revolt had spread to the city precisely because it was a wealthy city, known for its production of finished textiles, lace and silk, and beer exports to the southern provinces, and its proud and independent bourgeois class, which the regents of the Asylum very properly represented, supported the Dutch revolution against the Spanish Habsburgs. When the city of Brielle was taken by the Watergeuzen, the Protestant Sea Beggars, or "pirates," as the Spanish authorities called them, the town of Haarlem supported them. The King of Spain, Philip II, sent his army north under the command of Don Federico de Alba, son of the Duke of Alba whose depredations throughout the provinces were already quite famous. The cruel treatement of the citizens of Zutphen and Naarden in November 1572, put the people of Haarlem on notice of the brutality of the Spanish "tercios." Then, on December 11, 1572, the Spaniards put Haarlem under siege. For two months the situation was one of attrition. The Spanish dug tunnels to reach the city walls and blow them up. Amsterdam, in a fawning attempt at deference to the King, refused to help the besieged city, and its fleet controlled the Haarlemmermeer, through which supplies had previously reached Haarlem from Sassenheim on the south-eastern shore. The blockade became effective on that huge lake, which constituted a sea between Haarlem and Leiden, and the city was isolated from the outside. As hunger and despair spread among the people, all hopes hung on the army of William of Orange, arraigned near Leiden, but the Spanish trapped him and defeated him at Manpad. After seven months of desperate siege, the city surrendered in July, 1573, and Don Federico celebrated a Te Deum in the great church of Saint Bavo. The Spanish triumph was short lived, however,and as the situation of Spain deteriorated in Holland, the city boldly asserted its independence and confiscated all the possessions and properties of the Catholic Church. The Spanish left in 1577 and under the so-called Convention of Veere, Protestants and Catholics were given equal rights, though in government the Protestants clearly had the upper hand and Catholic possessions once seized were never returned. To restore the economy and attract workers for the brewing and bleaching businesses, the Haarlem council decided to promote the pursuit of the arts and crafts, showing tolerance for diversity among religious beliefs. This attracted a large influx of Flemish and French immigrants (Catholics and Hugenots, both) who were fleeing the Spanish occupation of their own cities. This demographic and economic expansion that followed constitutes the background to the Golden Age of Haarlem's art and crafts.

Jacob van Ruisdael's famous painting of the environs of Haarlem, with the Church of Sint Bavo in the distance, was painted around 1670, long after the siege of Haarlem. It shows a prosperous farm in the foreground where linen lace is being put out to dry after its careful rinsing with the clean water of the dunes around the city. Ruisdael was a native of Haarlem, as Hals was before him, but his work is already both more conservative and more optimistic. The rigors of the Calvinist revolution had been left far behind.


  1. I have two comments. (1) I would have liked to hear more about Vermeer. It is wonderful to look more closely at Hals, in light of what I now know about the struggles in Haarlem against the Spaniards and the emergence of Calvinism there. (2) It's ironic that you mention van Ruysdael at the end there. This was not only "long after the siege" -- it was 100 years later! And incidentally I am glad to know this, having always been a fan of van Ruysdael's work.

  2. The reason I say little about Vermeer is that I don't see Haarlem as his city, and my purpose was to say something about Haarlem. Delft is the city of Vermeer. As for Ruisdael, he is only here because of his painting of Haarlem. I don't know much about him, though I love his paintings quite well. I shall have to re-visit this great master.

  3. Referring to the numerous 'Governor paintings' of Frans Hals one may see from the stilted poses (pretty much in every one) one is immediately aware (justifiably suspicious) that the disjointed composition is concocted from varied ready-made individual studies of 'governors'. Perhaps, dutifully suspicious of this artist, as one should be suspicious of any painter, the Hals individual sitters are brought together into his 'governor paintings' appearing decidedly 'suspicious' of each other.

  4. Hi Albert. Where did you find this painting of Ruisdael? Was it in Haarlem that you found it? The quality is really good for detail, thanks!

  5. Hi Amanda. I scanned a postcard I bought there, at the wonderful Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. The painting itself is at the Berlin Gemaeldegalerie, and is surprisingly small.