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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Hals, Malle Babbe

Frans Hals, Malle Babbe, c. 1633, oil on canvas, 78.50 x 66.20 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(relaxed piano music) - [Beth] Frans Hals' Malle Babbe is not an easy image to look at. - [Steven] Art historians have actually found documentation that this was a historical figure, somebody who actually lived in Harlem at this time. She was, in fact, committed to the city of Harlem's insane asylum. The owl comes from a Dutch expression "to be as drunk as an owl," but also a reference to the idea of night, and perhaps also a reference to Malle Babbe's nickname, which referred to her as a witch, and of course the owl is a signifier of witchcraft. It's interesting to note just biographically that the artist's, Frans Hals, son was also committed there with her. So it seems that the artist was perhaps inspired to explore madness in this very direct way. - [Beth] This is a very complicated picture in terms of the response that it evokes in us. It's that feeling of seeing someone who isn't connected to reality anymore, and wondering what they're interaction is going to be with us. Is she going to ask something of me? Is she going to speak to me? I want to back away. - [Steven] So it's the unpredictability, it's the risk that she'll too easily step outside of the conventions of interaction. - [Beth] And that I won't know how to respond to her, and that's very uncomfortable. - [Steven] So here we have an artist who is painting this image of her. Maybe she sat for him, maybe she didn't, but it's an investigation of her insanity, it's an investigation of the dangers of drink, it's his own exploration of the world that his son inhabits, perhaps. But it doesn't seem particularly sympathetic. - [Beth] I think he painted her very honestly. I think that's part of the rapidity of the brush work, is that it is a caught moment. - [Steven] She appears out of control, and part of the reason for that is Hals' handling of brushwork. You see this incredibly rapid, incredibly gestural brushwork. It seems almost as if it is his signature across the surface. Look, for instance, at the white at the bottom right that seems to be where she ties her apron, or look at the black line that defines the shadow at the end of the ruffle of her collar. It is just electric. We see his hand moving with lightening speed across that surface, and it seems to mimic the unease that this woman herself creates. - [Beth] I think the brushwork is a perfect metaphor for her state of mind, in a way that's really tragic. We have this moment of laughter, yet what we're looking at is the tragedy of mental illness, and I think that's part of what makes us uncomfortable as viewers. - [Steven] Especially since laughter should take place in a social environment, and we don't know where she is. But generally we would hope that she would be in a tavern with others. Perhaps a joke had been told and she was responding. But because that other information is not available to us, she's isolated with her own laughter, making this even more uncomfortable. You know the 17th century in Holland was this moment when painting becomes modern, in that it begins to fulfill its potential to represent humanity in all of its facets. No longer is painting relegated to the religious, no longer is painting relegated to the royal portrait, but there is this attention now to some of the complications that make us human. (jazz piano music)