Frans Hals: Malle Babbe (1633-1635); Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

The meaning of this wonderfully lively painting, Malle Babbe (‘Loony Babbe’) by the Haarlem artist Frans Hals, has always remained somewhat obscure. It depicts an elderly woman in an elated mood, holding a large tankard, probably filled with beer. An owl is perched on her shoulder.
The work, painted between 1633 and 1635, is usually classified in the genre of the 'tronie' (‘face’), a type of Netherlandish painting that was not intended to show an identifiable person, but rather a certain mood or characteristic. Often, the facial expressions and costumes in such paintings are recognizable as deliberately exaggerated and theatrical. In Malle Babbe’s case, the owl, which traditionally serves as a symbol of wisdom, might also represent the darker side of life, since it’s a night bird. This explanation fits in with the nickname the painting got in the course of time: ‘The Witch of Haarlem’.
To make things more complicated, there was an actual ‘Malle Babbe’ who lived in Haarlem at the time Hals made this painting and it is quite possible that Hals knew the woman closely. She was an inmate of Het Dolhuys, a work house for (mentally) ill people in Haarlem, where, for some time, Hals’ son Pieter resided as well. Malle Babbe was a commonly known figure in the city and probably treated as a kind of ‘village idiot’. Therefore, we may conclude that in this painting, the owl could be hinting at her lunacy, representing the dark forces which have taken possession of her mind.
(text: Maarten Levendig)