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Malle Babbe

Frans Hals

Malle Babbe

Frans Hals
  • Date: 1633 - 1635
  • Style: Baroque
  • Genre: portrait, tronie
  • Media: oil, canvas
  • Dimensions: 64 x 75 cm
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Malle Babbe is one of the most notable examples of Hals’s ‘rough’ painting style. Through his bold and loose brushstrokes, Hals captured the older woman’s spontaneous movement and her full-throated cackle. The painting was admired by 19th-century scholars and artists, such as Realist painter Gustav Courbet, who even created a copy of the painting, Malle Babbe (1869). The spontaneous quality of the painting led to speculations that Malle Babbe was created in a single sitting through a burst of inspiration. However, scans have conclusively proven that the painting has several layers. The painting is sometimes categorized as a tronie, a type of painting that was popular in the Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque art. Tronie, which means ‘face,’ is a study and portrayal of exaggerated facial expressions or stereotypical characters. Tronie paintings, unlike commissioned portraits, were made to be sold in the open market. Since Hals sold his art in public markets, he was familiar with tronie paintings created by different artists. Most likely, he was influenced by Flemish tronie painters like Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Jacob Jordaens, who successfully captured facial features through individual brushstrokes.

The character of Malle Babbe is depicted with a beer mug and an owl seated on her shoulder. Most commonly, the owl is associated with wisdom; however, it also holds other symbolic meanings that can prove relevant to the analysis of Hals’s painting. Because the owl is a nocturnal animal that prefers darkness to light, it was used as a symbol of sin and the power of evil over man. This well-established tradition in Rotterdam drawing was employed by artists such as Hieronymus Bosch in his drawing The Owl’s Nest (ca. 1505-1516). Besides, the owl was a famous symbol of folly and vulgarity. The bird was also associated with drunkenness, according to a Dutch proverb, ‘drunk as an owl.’ This symbolism probably stems from the bird’s clumsy and fluttering movements during the daytime.

Records show that Malle Babbe was a real person, who resided in a charitable institution for the mentally ill in Haarlem. It is possible that Hals knew the woman because his mentally impaired son Pieter was confined in the same institution. The woman probably suffered from mental illness or alcoholism, both options explain the iconography of the large mug and owl. The word ‘malle’ means crazy, so possibly it was a portrait of a figure known among commoners in Haarlem. However, this could also be a genre portrait that carries an allegorical meaning. Genre portraits depicted lower classes, such as peasants, musicians, or merry drinkers. These portraits often made moral judgments on sensory pleasures. In this context, Malle Babbe might be an allegory for insanity and foolishness or a warning against the dangers of drunkenness.

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Malle Babbe is a painting by the Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals, painted between 1633 and 1635 and now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. The painting has also been titled as Hille Bobbe or the Witch of Haarlem. It was traditionally interpreted as a tronie, or genre painting in a portrait format, depicting a mythic witch-figure. The painting is now often identified as a genre-style portrait of a specific individual from Haarlem, known as Malle (meaning "crazy") Babbe, who may have been an alcoholic or suffered from a mental illness.

The painting has been an object of artistic admiration from Hals's lifetime, as there are several copies and variants painted by his followers. It was admired by Gustave Courbet, who made a copy of it in 1869 while it was on view in Munich.

The painting measures 75 × 64 cm and shows the face of a smiling woman, sitting at the corner of a table, apparently talking or laughing at someone or something to the right of the canvas. With her right hand, the woman is gripping a pewter beer mug with an opened lid. An owl sits on the woman’s left shoulder. The clothing of the woman is simple and corresponds with the mode around 1630 in Haarlem. Her face is animated in an almost manic grimace. The very free handling of paint is typical of Hals' style, and not very different from that on his more formal commissioned portraits.

The painting was for a long time mislabeled as Hille Bobbe (The Witch of Haarlem) though the inscription on the back of the picture frame reads Malle Babbe van Haerlem … Fr[a]ns Hals (Malle Babbe of Haarlem).

Under the witch interpretation, the owl was considered a possible familiar. However the subject matter of Frans Hals in his other paintings would suggest that the painting is probably of a pub scene, in which case the owl would reflect the Dutch proverb, "drunk as an owl."

Research in the Netherlands municipality of Haarlem showed that a real Malle Babbe actually existed. She was included in a list of residents of the local hospital called Het Dolhuys, situated outside the city walls, which served people who were dangerous to themselves or to society, as well as a hospice for travellers arriving after the city gates had closed. Around 1642, Pieter Hals, a son of Frans Hals, was also in this hospice. Hals and this Malle Babbe had probably already met by this time, as she was evidently a known personality in Haarlem, although none other of her biographical details survive. In Dutch the adjective "Malle" signifies "loony" and that it is not uncommon to see painters or writers depict this type of village figure. In this type of depiction one can find a record of unbalanced figures of society as belonging to the scenery of everyday life, or the artist may enjoy exploring the thin line between sanity and lunacy.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is in possession of a similar painting. It is not clear who the creator of this painting is. In the past it was also attributed to Frans Hals, but it is now thought to be the work of one of his pupils.

This is a part of the Wikipedia article used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). The full text of the article is here →

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