Frans Hals was born in 1580 or 1581, in Antwerp. Like many, Hals' family emigrated from the Spanish Netherlands to Haarlem In 1585-the year of the Fall of Antwerp-where he lived for the remainder of his life. Hals studied under another Flemish-émigré, Karel van Mander (1548-1606), whose Mannerist influence, however, is not noticeably visible in his work. Afterwards, at the age of 27, he became a member of the city's Guild of Saint Luke. The earliest known example of Hals' art is the 1611, Jacobus Zaffius. His 'breakthrough' came in 1616, with the life-size group portrait, The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company.
Historians have erroneously reported that he mistreated his first wife, Anneke Hermansz (Annetje Harmensdochter Abeel), based on records that a Frans Hals was charged with spousal abuse in Haarlem in 1616. However, as Seymour Slive has pointed out, the Frans Hals in question was not the artist, but another Haarlem resident of the same name. Indeed, at the time of these charges, the artist had no wife to mistreat as Anneke had died earlier in 1616. Similarly, historical accounts of Hals' propensity for drink have been largely based on embellished anecdotes of his early biographers, namely Arnold Houbraken, with no direct evidence existing documenting such. In 1617, already with two children by Anneke, he married Lysbeth Reyniers in Spaarndam, a small village outside the Haarlem. They had eight children.
Although Hals' work was in demand throughout his life, he experienced financial difficulties. In addition to painting, he worked as an art dealer and restorer. His creditors took him to court several times, and to settle his debt with a baker in 1652 he sold his belongings. The inventory of the property seized mentions only three mattresses and bolsters, an armoire, a table and five pictures. Left destitute, the municipality gave him an annuity of 200 forms in 1664.
At a time when the Dutch nation fought for independence, Hals appeared in the ranks of the schutterij, a military guild. He was also a member of a local chamber of rhetoric, and in 1644 chairman of the Painters Corporation at Haarlem.
Frans Hals died in Haarlem in 1666 and was buried in the city's St. Bavo Church. His widow later died obscurely in a hospital after seeking outdoor relief from the guardians of the poor.
Hals is best known for his portraits, mainly of wealthy citizens, like Pieter van den Broecke and Isaac Massa, whom he painted three times. He also painted large group portraits, many of which showed civil guards. He was a Baroque painter who practiced an intimate realism with a radically free approach. His pictures illustrate the various strata of society; banquets or meetings of officers, sharpshooters, guildsmen, admirals, generals, burgomasters, merchants, lawyers, and clerks, itinerant players and singers, gentlefolk, fishwives and tavern heroes.
In group portraits, such as the Archers of St. Hadrian, Hals captures each character in a different manner. The faces are not idealized and are clearly distinguishable, with their personalities revealed in a variety of poses and facial expressions.
He studied under the painter and historian Karel van Mander (Hals owned some paintings by van Mander that were amongst the items sold to pay his bakery debt in 1652). He soon improved upon the practice of the time, as exemplified by Jan van Scorel and Antonio Moro, and gradually emancipated himself from traditional portrait conventions.
Hals was fond of daylight and silvery sheen, while Rembrandt used golden glow effects based upon artificial contrasts of low light in immeasurable gloom. Both men were painters of touch, but of touch on different keys - Rembrandt was the bass, Hals the treble. Hals seized, with rare intuition, a moment in the life of his subjects. What nature displayed in that moment he reproduced thoroughly in a delicate scale of color, and with mastery over every form of expression. He became so clever that exact tone, light and shade, and modeling were obtained with a few marked and fluid strokes of the brush.The only record of his work in the first decade of his independent activity is an engraving by Jan van de Velde copied from lost portrait of The Minister Johannes Bogardus. Early works by Hals, such as Two Boys Playing and Singing and a Banquet of the Officers of the St Joris Doele or Arquebusiers of St George (1616), show him as a careful draughtsman capable of great finish, yet spirited withal. The flesh he painted is pastose and burnished, less clear than it subsequently became. Later, he became more effective, displayed more freedom of hand, and a greater command of effect.
During this period he painted the full-length portrait of Madame van Beresteyn (Louvre), and a full-length portrait of Willem van Heythuysen leaning on a sword. Both these pictures are equalled by the other Banquet of the Officers of the Arquebusiers of St George (with different portraits) and The Banquet of the Officers of the Cloveniers or Arquebusiers of St Andrew of 1627 and an Assembly of the Officers of the Arquebusiers of St Andrew of 1633. A similar painting, with the date of 1637, suggests some study of Rembrandt masterpieces, and a similar influence is apparent in a picture of 1641 representing the Regents of the Company of St Elizabeth, and in the portrait of Maria Voogt at Amsterdam.
From 1620 till 1640 he painted many double portraits of married couples, on separate panels, the man on the left panel, his wife at his right. Only once did Hals portray a couple, Isaac Massa and his wife on a single canvas: Double Portrait of a Couple, (c. 1623, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam).