Malle Babbe (Oil on Canvas, 28 x 25 in, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) is a macabre work by artist Frans Hals. Most notable for his loose painterly brushwork, he helped introduce this lively style of painting into Dutch art. Painted between 1633 and 1635, this piece was traditionally interpreted as a genre painting in portrait format, depicting a fictional character that may have been an alcoholic or suffered from a mental illness. For this reason, the painting is also sometimes referred to as the Witch of Haarlem or Hille Bobbe. Since Hals passing, Malle Babbe has been a constant object of artistic admiration, spawning several copies and variants painted by his followers and other artists.
Here, Christy Slobogin shares her interpretation of the work:
Frans Hals’ seventeenth century portrayal of the nonfictional woman Malle Babbe created a character that would come to represent madness and alcoholism. Copied many times in the almost four hundred years since its creation, Malle Babbe has captured the imagination of both artists and art appreciators.
Malle Babbe was a real person who was often called the Witch of Haarlem—a frenzied alcoholic who spent much of her time in Haarlem’s pubs and taverns. In addition to being plagued by alcoholism, Malle Babbe spent some time in the same Haarlem mental institution that confined Hals’ own son.
Hals successfully conveys Malle Babbe’s alcoholism and insanity with his use of hurried and loose brushstrokes. Hals’ technique suggests spontaneous movement and a frantic personality. Because of these brushstrokes, the viewer sees Malle Babbe through a blurry lens, much like how the vision of a drunk is blurred.
The owl that sits upon Malle Babbe’s shoulder is of the utmost symbolic importance. “As drunk as an owl” was a common phrase used in the Netherlands at the time of Frans Hals and Malle Babbe. Also, owls are animals that prefer darkness to light, so they are often paired with people that dwell in the sinful dark side of society. Malle Babbe certainly fit into that category as the “Witch of Haarlem.”