Frans Hals (1582/3 – 1666)
The Laughing Cavalier
In this exuberant half-length portrait, a young man poses, arm rakishly akimbo, against a plain grey background. The painting is inscribed with the date (1624) and the sitter’s age (26). The work is unique in Hals’s male portraiture for the rich colour that is largely imparted by the sitter’s flamboyant costume: a doublet embroidered with fanciful motifs in white, gold and red thread, with a gilded rapier pommel visible at the crook of his elbow.
Neither the identity of the sitter nor the function of the portrait has yet been firmly established. The dazzling costume may offer some important clues, however. The motifs embroidered on the sitter’s doublet have been identified in emblem books of the time and were symbolic of the pleasures and pains of love; they include arrows, flaming cornucopia and lovers’ knots. As allusions to gallantry and courtship, they may indicate that the work was painted as a betrothal portrait (cf. Van Dyck, P94), although no companion piece has been identified. It has also been suggested that the motifs (particularly the caduceus, the attribute of the Roman god Mercury) allude to an occupation in commerce and Pieter Biesboer has recently proposed that the sitter is Tieleman Roosterman, a wealthy Harlem textile merchant.
By 1624, Hals had painted a number of single and double portraits as well as a group portrait of a civic militia company. This work is probably the artist’s most famous portrait and demonstrates his virtuosity in the lively characterisation of his sitters, accomplished in his bravura style.
Hals grants the sitter a commanding aspect, placing him in close proximity to the picture plane and depicting him from a low viewpoint. The swaggering pose of the hand on the hip is closely associated with Hals’s male portraiture: a means of endowing his sitters with vitality and self- confidence, the pose also serves as an illusionistic device to give the picture greater pictorial depth. The portrait displays a variety of brushwork, from fine, blended strokes in the face to the broader, loose brushwork in the costume.
By the early nineteenth century, Hals’s reputation had fallen into relative obscurity. Despite this, the portrait became the object of a furious bidding battle between the 4th Marquess of Hertford and Baron James de Rothschild at a Paris auction in 1865. It was acquired by Lord Hertford for the princely sum of 51.000 francs (about £2,040), an event which proved to be a turning point in the artist’s critical reputation. At the Royal Academy exhibition of 1888, the painting was exhibited with the title ‘The Laughing Cavalier.’ Although the sitter is neither laughing nor a cavalier, the title conveys the sense of jocularity and swagger that is the cumulative effect of the low viewpoint and dazzling technique together with the sitter’s upturned mustache, twinkling eyes, and arrogant pose. The celebrity of the Laughing Cavalier subsequently inspired a novel with the same title by Baroness Orczy (1913), author of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and a musical by Arkell and Byrne (1937).