"There were many local committees and governing boards, prominent in the life of Dutch cities, which followed the praiseworthy custom of having their group portraits painted for the board-rooms and meeting-places of their worshipful companies. An artist whose manner appealed to this public could therefore hope for a reasonably steady income. Once his manner ceased to be fashionable, however, he might face ruin.
"The first outstanding master of free Holland, Frans Hals, was forced to lead such a precarious existence. Hals belonged to the same generation as Rubens. His parents had left the southern Netherlands because they were Protestants and had settled in the prosperous Dutch city of Haarlem. We know little about his life except that he frequently owed money to his baker or shoemaker. In his old age - he lived to be over eighty - he was granted a small pittance by the municipal almshouse, whose board of governors he painted. The Company of St George (The St Jorisdoelen), which dates from near the beginning of his career, shows the brilliance and originality with which he approached this kind of task. The citizens of the proudly independent towns of the Netherlands had to do their turn in serving as militiamen, usually under the command of the most prosperous inhabitants. It was the custom in the city of Haarlem to honor the officers of these units after their stint of duty with a sumptuous banquet, and it had also become a tradition to commemorate these happy events in a large painting. It was surely no easy matter for an artist to record the likenesses of so many men within one frame without the result looking stiff or contrived - as earlier efforts invariably did.
"Hals understood from the beginning how to convey the spirit of the jolly occasion and how to bring life into such a ceremonial group without neglecting the purpose of showing each of the twelve members present so convincingly that we feel we must have met them: from the portly colonel who presides at the end of the table, raising his glass, to the young ensign on the opposite side who is not accorded a seat, but proudly looks out of the picture as if he wants us to admire his splendid outfit.
"Perhaps we can admire his mastery even more when we look at one of the many individual portraits that brought so little money to Hals and his family. Compared to earlier portraits, it looks almost like a snapshot. We seem to know this Pieter van den Broecke, a true merchant-adventurer of the seventeenth-century. Let us think back to Holbein's painting of Sir Richard Southwell, painted less than a century earlier, or even to the portraits which Rubens, Van Dyck or Velazquez painted at that time in Catholic Europe. For all their liveliness and truth to nature one feels that the painters had carefully arranged the sitter's pose so as to convey the idea of dignified aristocratic breeding. The portraits of Hals give us the impression that the painter has 'caught' his sitter at a characteristic moment and fixed it for ever on canvas. It is difficult for us to imagine how bold and unconventional these paintings must have looked to the public. The very way in which Hals handled paint and brush suggests that he quickly seized a fleeting impression. Earlier portraits are painted with visible patience - we sometimes feel that the subject must have sat still for many a session while the painter carefully recorded detail upon detail. Hals never allowed his model to get tired or stale. We seem to witness his quick and deft handling of the brush through which he conjures up the image of tousled hair or of a crumpled sleeve with a few touches of light and dark paint. Of course, the impression that Hals gives us, the impression of a casual glimpse of the sitter in a characteristic movement and mood, could never have been achieved without a very calculated effort. What looks at first like a happy-go-lucky approach is really the result of a carefully thought-out effect. Though the portrait is not symmetrical as earlier portraits often were, it is not lopsided. Like other masters of the Baroque period, Hals knew how to attain the impression of balance without appearing to follow any rule."
- From "The Story of Art", by E.H. Gombrich