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Portait of a Man Holding a Watch- Academic Verison

AnotherAbby's picture

“No, am I crazy? Have we seen that one before? I think we’ve seen that one before.”

“I don’t know. I mean, they’re all Renoir, and they’re all naked ladies viewed from behind and kind of to the side, so maybe?”

“We’ve seen that one before. Definitely”


The light and airy women seem to glance sidelong at us out of their gilded frames. No, there were no repeat paintings, although judging by the shapes of the women and fruit Renoir painted, the man certainly had a type. His delicate but broad brushstrokes, typical of an impressionist, are at least present in almost every room and prevalent in many. The colors are bright and go well with the gold of the frames and walls, which make the rooms of the gallery look warm and invite the viewer in to wander as they please.

However, amidst a sea of soft colors and forms, there is an island of dark tones and well-defined shapes that starkly contrasts against the colorful lines surrounding it. Beset on all sides by small impressionist paintings, all save two by Renoir himself, Frans Hals’ Portrait of a Man Holding a Watch sticks out almost as much as the iron hinges, doorknockers, and other metal accessories adorning the walls of the Barnes.

Take a step back. The man doesn’t belong. His practically photorealistic quality stands out as a statement of differing styles against the impressionist color blocks and sense of light. He looms on the wall, sucking the light from the room.

The man is of the traditional style in which the Dutch masters painted their subjects: Black clothes, black hat, white collar, dark background, stately pose, and nondescript expression. The only thing that seems to differentiate this portrait from any others is the small golden pocket watch in his left hand. The watch itself appears impossibly tiny in relation to the man. It is no bigger than his somewhat bulbous nose, but despite its size it has layers of details that were no doubt painstakingly painted on. From afar, it seems like the level of detail put into the watch overshadows the detail on the rest of the man.

Take a step forward, closer to the line that divides the viewer from the art. Get dangerously close to crossing it.  He’s not as photorealistic as he seems.  The oil paint is old and cracked, but that’s not what kills the illusion. Close up, the colors are layered in blocks of color like the impressionist works. The dark, seemingly monotone brown background is a fantastic flurry of reds and oranges and greens that all blend to make a warm, burnt brown, that lightens around the outline of the man like a bright halo. His face has shades of greens by the brows, that fade into oranges and purples by his beard. It’s not some generic flesh tone that was shaded with highlights and lowlights of the same color; it’s unexpected colors meant to build up the way the face naturally looks, in the process giving it an almost unnatural quality when viewed closely.

The collar too, meant to look crisp and white, is actually a blend of blues and purples underneath an overcoat of white paint, giving the linen definition. The way Hals uses this color technique actually mirrors the techniques used by the impressionist painters surrounding him on the wall. The impressionists made their paintings with the idea of depicting how light changed and interacted with their subjects. This earlier painting is built on the same general concept, of capturing how light interacts with the subject, but in such a way that it shows the expression of light rather than the impression. It shows this man’s power, and the feelings that come out of this painting are not from the mystical style of the scene, but instead from the dynamic way the man is portrayed.

There is no movement to him, there is no passing of time shown the way the impressionists tried to show, but there is a simplicity in the fact that instead of making something immortal, like a moment or the painting itself, Hals makes someone immortal—the subject of the painting.The watch itself even echoes that idea, contrasting the lack of the passage of time within the work with the constant reminder that time is tirelessly moving forward. The man's almost bemused expression and highlight-less eyes bore deeply into the viewer, staring unflinchingly outward, unlike the serene and occasionally flirtatious expressions on the faces of the Renoir girls. With deeper research one could learn who this man was; if he was a wealthy patron of Frans Hals or simply a man who agreed to pose, but when it comes down to the enjoyment of this painting, the subject’s life has no bearing on the style in which Hals painted him, or the immortality this painting grants him. 

I refrained from putting the picture of the painting in until the end, because this photo, the only one I could find, does not do the level of detail justice.