Spotlight: Hals’ ‘The Laughing Cavalier’

Spotlight: Hals’ ‘The Laughing Cavalier’

Hals (1582-1666) was a Dutch Golden Age Painter who lived and worked near Haarlem. He was the son of a cloth merchant and studied under the Mannerist painter Van Mander whose influence really isn’t evident in Hals’ body of work.

Hals is instrumental in developing the Dutch style of portraiture in this era – he mainly painted wealthy noblemen, but his oeuvre represents all sectors of society: merchants, fishermen, singers, tavern-goers and was awarded many wedding portrait commissions. Also it wasn’t until the late 18th century that commissioned portraits depicted sitters smiling – except for Hals who frequently ave expressions to his sitters.

Indeed, the name ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ (1624, Wallace Collection) wasn’t given until the late 19th century. It is thought to be originally coined ‘Portrait of A Man‘ and renamed ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ between 1875 and 1888 thanks to its then-owner. However, as has often been pointed out the sitter is neither laughing, merely smiling, nor a cavalier.

The sitter wears a beautiful and very expensive silk outfit pointing to his social standing, and perhaps tells a deeper story – it is embroidered with motifs common in emblem books of the time. These motifs are symbolic of the pains and pleasures of love, including arrows, flaming cornucopiae and lovers’ knots, which may suggest that the picture is a betrothal portrait. One of the most brilliant of all Baroque portraits, the picture’s low viewpoint and swaggering pose contribute to its sense of monumentality.

Throughout his life Hals was extremely popular and was instrumental in shaping the development of 16th century group portraiture. He lived so long however that his style eventually waned and to earn money in his later years also worked as a restorer, art tax expert and art dealer. Thanks to being taken to court, ended up being made bankrupt in 1664, aged 82 two years before his death.

Such was the regard for him, however, that he was offered a city pension – very unusual at the time – and, upon his death his wife was given an almshouse. Hals’ reputation waned after his death and for two centuries he was held in such poor esteem that some of his paintings, which are now among the proudest possessions of public galleries, were sold at auction for a few pounds or even shillings.