Interested in a Copy for Yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 210a of the Statens Museum for Kunst
Commissioned by? Probably Augustijn Bloemaert, a Catholic priest and friend of Descartes.
What do you see? A portrait of the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes. Hals paints him in three-quarters view. Descartes looks at the viewer with a confident, thoughtful, and inquisitive expression. The fingers of his left hand are visible in the bottom right. He holds his had in this hand. Someone has scratched this portrait by Hals after he completed it. There are zigzagging scratches in Descartes’ face. Probably this was done by someone who did not agree with some of the revolutionary ideas of Descartes.
Backstory: In 1648, while Descartes lives in the Dutch Republic, Queen Christina of Sweden invites René Descartes to Sweden. Descartes accepts the invitation but does not move right away to Sweden. One of Descartes’ Dutch friends is the Catholic priest Augustijn Bloemaert. He is afraid that he may never see his friend again and invites Descartes to Haarlem where he lives. Being familiar with Frans Hals, Bloemaert commissions Hals to paint a portrait of Descartes. However, Descartes does not have much time to sit, and Hals needs to paint the portrait quicker than he usually does. He decides to use a small wooden panel of 5.5 x 7.5 inch (14 x 19 cm). It is the smallest painting he created during his life that was not on a copper background.
Other Portraits of Descartes: Several versions of Hals’ portrait of Descartes are known, though Hals has painted only one of them and the rest are copies. One of those copies hangs in the Louvre. For a long time, the Louvre thought that they owned the original portrait by Hals, but nowadays the majority of art experts believes that the original is in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. Hals was not the only one who portrayed Descartes. Between 1642 and 1649, the French painter and engraver, Sébastien Bourdon, also painted a portrait of Descartes. Compared to the painting of Hals, Bourdon’s portrait is static and lifeless. It is not surprising that Hals’ portrait of Descartes is the portrait that most people have in mind nowadays when thinking of Descartes.
Who is Descartes? René Descartes (1596 – 1650) is one of the greatest philosophers and scientists ever. He was born in France and lived in the Dutch Republic between 1628 and 1649. In 1641, he published his influential book Meditations on First Philosophy. In this book, he figures out what can be known for sure. Descartes describes that people cannot trust their senses. People acquire knowledge through their senses, but they can be deceiving. Descartes asks himself questions about all sorts of beliefs, and if he even finds the slightest amount of doubt, he removes that belief from his mind. The result of that exercise is that only mathematics is true. Using that base level of knowledge as a starting point, he starts to build up his knowledge again. He argues that a person has to exist by writing “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). Through the publication of this book and his other books, Descartes became one of the most influential philosophers ever.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals was born by the end of 1582 or early 1583 in Antwerp, Belgium. He died in 1666 in Haarlem, The Netherlands. He was a very talented and productive painter. About 80 percent of his works consists of portraits, among which The Laughing Cavalier from 1624 in the Wallace Collection and his 1634 Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Hals had a loose painting style, which means that he used relatively few brush strokes to depict something. You can often see the brush strokes in his paintings and particularly so in his Portrait of René Descartes.
Fun fact: Soon after Hals portrayed Descartes in 1649, Descartes leaves for Stockholm to teach Queen Christina of Sweden. Descartes has to wake up very early there to teach the queen at five in the morning. This made him fairly miserable because Descartes was used to waking up late, around noon, most days. The reason was that he believed that the best thinking could be done while in bed. At a young age, Descartes already convinced his teachers that he should only leave bed very late. He was often sick, and some extra sleep was beneficial to his health. He used this time in the morning to think and reflect on his ideas. Descartes’ time in Sweden was not successful. Besides his early mornings, the Swedish Winter had a negative impact on his health, and he died in February 1650.
Written by Eelco Kappe