FRANS HALS has written novels and short stories in paint. They are his 17th-century portraits of the townspeople of Haarlem, one of the major cities in the Netherlands during the early part of that century. So ``Frans Hals,'' the first major exhibition of his paintings in the United States, introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters in the new show at the National Gallery of Art here. It is Hals's humanity and, perhaps, the struggles of his own life that gave him such empathy for the people he painted. To stand in front of one of his great portraits is to see the soul of the sitters revealed as vividly as Tolstoy, Flaubert, or Joyce reveal the characters in their books.
Professor Seymour Slive, a Hals expert and co-curator of this exhibition, says that one portrait the viewer should be sure not to miss is ``Regentesses of the Old Men's Almshouse,'' dated 1644, two years before the artist died without a penny. He had spent his life on the edge of poverty; when his first wife died, he didn't even have the money to bury her. Hals gives the viewer a sudden sharp insight from his painting as to what it feels like standing before these women who hold the key to his survival in their white-cuffed hands.
But he was not one of their wards, as some stories have suggested, and this portrait, along with the related ``Regents of the Old Men's Almshouse,'' is not, therefore, Hals's retaliation on canvas for their callous attitude. The elderly Hals couldn't pay his rent or heat his home. He begged Haarlem's city fathers for aid; in 1662 he received a subsidy from them, in 1663 a pension for the rest of life.
The regents and regentesses had comissioned Hals to paint these group portraits in 1664, during his great need, and they are the ultimate work of this great painter. The unforgetable ruddy faces of the regentesses and regents and their snow-white collars, cuffs, and caps stand out against the background of these huge, black portraits like diamonds on black velvet.
Christopher Brown, deputy keeper at the National Gallery in London and co-curator of the show, says, ``These are the great masterpieces of Frans Hals. It is so intense, so powerful, so unusual. I think this is really one of the great moments of Western European painting ... and to have them here in Washington is extraordinary, extraordinary generosity by the Dutch and, particularly, by the city of Haarlem. They really are great icons in Haarlem.''
These are not, of course, the only great works in this show, which offers more than 60 paintings and small oil sketches. They include the massive, 14-foot ``Corporalship of Captain Reael,'' one of Hals's many commissions for portraits of the milita companies guarding Dutch cities from Spanish soldiers. This 16-man group portrait, full of ruffles and flourishes, is known as ``The Meagre Company'' because it contains none of the hefty figures often found in his militia paintings.
The exhibition also includes his earliest painting, a portrait of Jacobius Zaffius, done in 1611, as well as other works such as the ``Family Portrait in a Landscape,'' the ``Merry Drinker,'' and ``The Rommel Pot Player.''
This exhibition is particularly important for American viewers, says Professor Slive, because ``there's never been a retrospective of Hals's works in our country, and it brings us every aspect....'' Speaking of the Hals portraits, Slive says, ``There's warmth there, human warmth. And he sees all aspects of humanity, [even] our frailties, and discovers a strength and will in ordinary folk that gives them an unexpected grandeur ... . So it's a cross section of all of Haarlem society.''
THE reckless side of Hals's nature evident in his painting was even more obvious in his life. Both of his marriages were shotgun marriages, the second to a woman who bore him 11 (of his 13) children, which kept him the classic starving artist. He also had a drinking problem, documented by his 18th-century biographer, Arnold Houbraken, who discusses his ``dissolute ways.'' For 200 years after his death, Hals's paintings fell into obscurity. But his reputation revived in the 1860s, when Manet and others brought his work to light again.
As encompassing as this exhibition is, Professor Slive notes that certain immovable works, like his most famous painting, ``The Laughing Cavalier,'' as well as ``Shrovetide Revellers,'' ``So-Called Jonker Ramp and his Sweetheart (The Prodigal Son?),'' and ``Portrait of a Man'' could not be brought here.
After closing at the National Gallery Dec. 31, the Hals exhibition moves on to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, (Jan. 13 through April 8, 1990), which organized it in association with the National Gallery; and to the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem (May 11 through July 22, 1990).