MADRID.- "Just to see that painting would make the journey to Amsterdam worthwhile," wrote Vincent van Gogh in 1885, after having seen this work in the Rijksmuseum. He particularly liked the "orange banner in the left corner", he had "seldom seen a more divinely beautiful figure". The painting that caused such a sensation was the group portrait of the crossbowmen's militia under Captain Reijnier Reael, painted by Frans Hals and Pieter Codde in 1633 - 1637.
Together with Rembrandt and Vermeer, Frans Hals is one of the most important and celebrated 17th-century Dutch painters. In 1633 he received the commission from Amsterdam to execute this ambitious composition of Captain Reijnier Reael and Lieutenant Cornelis Michielsz Blaeuw with their company. Following a dispute between the patrons of the works and Hals due to the latters slowness in executing the painting, it was completed in 1637 by Pieter Codde, an important artist who specialised in lighthearted interior scenes and small-format portraits.
The painting belongs to the type of group portrait known as the militia company, typically found in 16th- and 17th-century Dutch painting. It depicts sixteen armed volunteers who made themselves available to defend the Northern United Provinces. The only figures that have been identified to date are the two seated men: Captain Reijnier Reael and on his left, Lieutenant Cornelis Michielsz Blaeuw.
Portraits of militia companies are an artistic and social phenomenon typical of the Low Countries. These companies comprised volunteers from the elite urban classes who were not associated with the regular army controlled by the central State. As such they constituted an expression of the strength of civil society. They frequently commissioned and paid for group portraits of their members, displaying them in their headquarters.
At the time this canvas was executed (and also the most famous example of the genre, Rembrandts Night Watch of 1642) militia groups were still occasionally involved in combat. They looked back to the role of militia companies in the Dutch struggle for independence against the Spanish.
The part painted by Hals is typical of his most brilliant, mature style. A rapid sketch beneath the picture surface reveals that he was responsible for the design of the entire composition. Recently studied documentation indicates that Hals painted a number of the faces from live sittings with the models, while the clothes were painted in his studio. It is not known exactly when he abandoned the canvas, but to judge from its appearance, he seems to have painted the seven figures on the left (although some were subsequently re-touched by Codde). The animated facial expressions and the positions of the heads and hands of the figures to suggest they are engaged in an action or conversation are all devices typical of Hals. Again characteristic of his style is the emphasis on some of the brushstrokes, which are primarily used to depict highlights and which do not blend with each other. This type of handling would make Hals the favourite painter of the 19th-century French Impressionists and of his fellow-Dutchman Van Gogh.
The part of the painting executed by Pieter Codde (thought to include the figures on the right as well as significant areas of repainting in the other figures already painted by Halls, particularly in the clothing) is notably different from his usual detailed technique, suggesting that Codde deliberately aimed to maintain Halss style and to make the work as unified as possible.