Hals was an unusual artist in that, especially in the first half of his career, he was able to paint, with little or no coyness, people grinning, or being plain happy. The relative scarcity in the history of painting of people giggling or looking like they have just said or heard something tickling indicates how hard it must be for a painter to bring off such a thing. Hals’s images of laughter and mirth come across as being the underpinning of his approach. It is as if his work is based on a philosophical position, and he is saying, “We are alive, so how can we not be cheerful?” Far from all his people are effervescent. He was hardly a painter propounding a thesis. As Seymour Slive, our foremost authority on the artist, has suggested, Hals seems to have taken the key to each of his pictures from the nature of his encounter with the sitter. (Slive’s writings on Hals have the same warmth, directness, energy, and clarity that rise from the paintings.) The experience of the 1989 retrospective, which was largely Slive’s work and which can almost be recaptured in its catalog, where the reproductions are large and good, is that we are encountering a storehouse of subtle moods and expressions.
more from Sanford Schwartz at the NYRB here.