[Fig. 1] Louis Betts (American, 1873-1961), “Portrait of Booth Tarkington,” 1941
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of the Artist. 42.12
In the preface to a catalogue of an exhibition at the John Herron Art Museum (the predecessor to the IMA) in 1937, Indianapolis native Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) [Fig. 1] expresses his admiration for the Portrait of Frans Hals
[Fig. 2], then thought to be by the master’s own hand:
“…a keen and living bit of analysis from as quick and sure a brush as ever flicked canvas or panel. Admirably and pathetically lacking the remotest taint of vanity, this picture would have satisfied Robert Burns; battered Frans Hals, without self-pity, could see himself as others saw him, but more shrewdly.”
[Fig. 2] Unknown artist (Dutch), “Portrait of Frans Hals,” about 1650
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of The Clowes Fund, C10047
The painting has since been qualified as the best surviving copy after a lost original by Hals. As the copyist retained many elements of the master’s signature style, however, Tarkington’s poetic words are still of interest to the modern viewer.
Tarkington’s characterization of Hals’s manner as “quick and sure” underscores the artist’s distinctive approach. The sketchy contours that suggest movement, the creation of tone through unblended brushstrokes [Fig. 3], and, foremost, the crisp slashes of color that sit unapologetically upon the surface – the final “master stroke” flicked onto the support that defines form – these are the elements that comprise the painter’s recognizable “rough” style. Hals puts these components into the service of a “keen and living bit of analysis,” suggesting the persuasiveness of the representation. Surprisingly, the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s brief description echoes many of the earliest commentaries upon the artist, such as those composed by Cornelis de Bie (1627-c. 1715), Govaert Bidloo (1649-1713), and Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719).
The portrait under consideration is not just any likeness, however, but the artist’s own visage. Tarkington celebrates the honesty with which Hals approached his own face, writing that the portrait lacks “the remotest taint of vanity.” Furthermore, he alludes to the difficulty of viewing oneself with such frankness by referencing Robert Burns’s 1786 poem “On a Louse”:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!”
[Fig. 3] Detail of “Portrait of Frans Hals.”
Tarkington likely meant the furrowed brow, the bags under the eyes, the slightly misaligned eyelids, and the thin cheeks when he wrote about Hals’s “shrewd” perception of himself. Tarkington’s descriptors of “battered” and “without self-pity,” however, smack of early authors’ incorrect portrayals of the artist as a drunkard and hedonist. (For a laugh, read Houbraken’s life of the artist, in which the author notes that Hals’s students often helped their inebriated master home from the tavern and, once, played an ambitious prank on him.) These characterizations resulted from centuries of confusion between the painter and his cousin of the same name – thankfully, these accounts have been discredited. On the contrary, the respectable, though oft indebted, painter appears to have received a quarterly stipend from the city of Haarlem during his final years in recognition of his artistic abilities!
Though removed in time and space from the early writers on Hals, Tarkington continued their perceptions of the artist’s stylistic strengths. Employing zippy language and an evocative reference to Scottish poetry, Tarkington provided a captivating variation upon past literature that reinvigorates this portrait for viewers of the 20th century and beyond.
Filed under: Art, Exhibitions, History, Indiana, The Collection