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The city of Harlem for centuries has been one of the most important economic and cultural centers of Holland. Unlike neighboring Amsterdam or the rapidly growing Rotterdam, Harlem has not become a large industrial city these days. It lagged behind the century, but in many respects retained not only the old layout, but also the buildings of the 17th century.
One of Harlem’s most interesting buildings is the former poorhouse built in 1608 by the outstanding Dutch architect Lebanon de Kay. Outside, from the street, it is not much different from the surrounding almost the same old modest brick building. Gates, like a corridor, cross the thickness of the building. Passing through them, you find yourself in a harmonious and calm proportional square courtyard. In the surrounding brick wall, decorated with only two rows of windows, the main portal is highlighted, which is located directly opposite the gate arch. Having passed this portal and the lobby behind it, you enter the spacious hall, which, probably, once served for the meetings of the "regents" - wealthy trustees of the almshouse. In 1664, two of their group portraits were painted by Frans Hals. The old artist could consider this lucrative order a great success. True, he was not prized in this institution, but was so poor that he received assistance from the city. Now we recall the gentlemen of the regents only because Frans Hals once wrote them, and the ancient almshouse became a museum of his name.
As already mentioned, the art museum was founded in Harlem back in 1862. In 1906, the city magistrate purchased for him the building of Lieven de Key. A monument of the same era as the main core of the museum collection, this building serves not only as a receptacle, but also as an ideal aesthetic setting for the works of Harlem painters. In accordance with the new purpose, it was rebuilt inside, and in 1913 it opened Frans Hals Museum.
This time we have before us not a state museum of national art culture, as in Amsterdam, and not a “cabinet” of individual outstanding works, as in The Hague, but a city museum. It mainly collected the work of local painters from the XV to the beginning of the XIX century.
Group portraits of Hals are the greatest treasure of the museum. All of them were once ordered to him by members of rifle societies or trustees of charitable institutions of Harlem, later became the property of the city and ended up in the city museum.
In the main hall of the museum, located, behind the main entrance, four group portraits of shooters are painted by Hals in the 1620-1630s. Nearby are two or three of the same portrait of his contemporaries. Thus, the hall resembles the premises of the rifle guild, decorated with traditional images of its members.
The works of Hals are not collected in one room, but are placed in various sections of the exposition and are surrounded by the works of other artists. They are perceived not only monographically as successive stages of the artist’s personal creative development, but also as stages in the history of the Harlem school of painting. In each of the sections of the collection, the works of Hals make up the main core. Shown together with portraits of shooters of the late 16th century, a giant canvas of 1616 serves as a powerful introduction to the 17th century. A series of brilliant group portraits of the 1620-1630s, located in the central hall next to several similar works by contemporaries, determines the nature of not only this part of the exhibition, but to a large extent the entire museum collection as presented by the visitor. After passing through several more halls, he finds himself face to face with two group portraits created by Hals in old age. These are the regents and regents of the Harlem poorhouse (1664). Two dark canvases are hanging against each other, and the viewer, peering into them, can hardly believe that they are painted by the same artist as the shooters' banquets.
The museum exposition does not end in the later portraits of Hals. You can move from one hall to another, consider the paintings of Harlem painters of the late XVII, XVIII, early XIX century. Many of them are good and have a truly Dutch subtle understanding of the beauty of soft color, built on close color ratios. However, it is better to come another time to give them the attention they deserve. After the works of Hals, it is impossible to concentrate on the coloristic subtleties and take seriously the quiet river views, skillfully selected still lifes, cleanly swept city squares and carefully cleaned rooms depicted in these paintings.