The latest exhibition at one of our favourite London museums, the Wallace Collection, doesn't scream children but it is an opportunity to see Frans Hals' famous portrait (The Laughing Cavalier') amongst other Frans Hals portraits, rather than in its usual spot upstairs in the Dutch galleries. We were lucky enough to hear the curator talk about Hals and his male portrait painting and it has inspired us to study his most well-known portrait in more detail.
'The Laughing Cavalier' is a portrait by the Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals (1582 -1666) and must be one of the most famous portraits that exists. He has featured in books and plays, in numerous advertisements and even in the London taxi 'Knowledge' test. Yet we know relatively little about him. The title that has contributed to the picture's fame – The Laughing Cavalier – was only given to this picture in the late nineteenth century so wan't really what the painter or patron intended when it was painted in 1624. Nor is he actually laughing – it his upturned moustache that gives the impression of a smile.
There is a modern appeal to Hal's portraits that stems from the fact that they feel so life-lie (it has been said that they "breathe"). To the viewer they feel less stiff and remote than other portraits of the era, and more like men you might meet. In this portrait the man's eyes are turned to directly confront the viewer and it is this captivating gaze that draws us in. Hals has painted the sitter in the extreme foreground of the composition so that he appears to spill out into the viewer’s space, making him appear extremely life-like.
Who is this good-looking man? No one really knows. But we do know that he was 26 years old when he sat for the portrait from the inscription on the upper right of the painting. We suspect he is probably a bachelor since he is facing the wrong way to be sitting with a female plus his extravagant clothes would be unusual on a portrait of a married man.
The man in the portrait is obviously wealthy and from the upper echelons of Dutch society. His upturned moustache would have required expensive upkeep. He wears the latest in luxurious fashion, his magnificent costume oozing wealth and confidence. Note the white lace collar and cuffs, the black satin sash on top of the jacket and his jauntily upturned, wide-brimmed hat. The unique and unusual iconography on the tapestry on his doublet is fascinating: it is adorned with vegetal and floral motifs and with symbols such as Mercury's hat and staff which we associate with the good fortune.
In the seventeenth century, the sword – ever a symbol of power – was an essential part of fashionable male dress. Look carefully and you will see that the sitter is wearing a fully-gilded dress sword or rapier – a sign of wealth, taste and elite status. While the current exhibition is on at the Wallace Collection, head upstairs to the Dutch Galleries and where 'The Laughing Cavalier' would usually hang is a first-class example of one of these swords (rapier) in a showcase where the portrait would usually be.
Frans Hals The Male Portrait , Wallace Collection, 22nd September to 30 January
Admission free for U18 s, £14 for adults
The portrait is usually part of the permanent collection which is free to enter
Anya Waddington 28th September 2021