Frans Hals is one of the most celebrated Dutch Golden Age artists, renowned for his portraiture and genre painting.
Among Frans Hals famous paintings, one truly stands out. It is, of course, the Laughing Cavalier.
Painted in 1624, the Laughing Cavalier is one of the most brilliant examples of Baroque portraiture of all time.
His composition is both lively and spontaneous, with the vivid colors, careful attention to texture and costume all superbly depicted with flowing, fluid accuracy.
The artist’s unusual viewpoint (painting the sitter from a low perspective) creates a feeling of monumentality. This unusual perspective and the man’s slightly turning posture featured in other Frans Hals paintings. Similar compositional devices appear in Portrait of a Man (1630) and Official Sentado (1631).
In all these works, the sitter looks down on the viewer, eyes glinting with life and curiosity.
As well as monumentalizing his subjects, the unique viewpoint also allows Hals to emphasize the astoundingly astute brushwork on the man’s sleeve and lace cuff.
Frans Hals’ bravura brushstrokes are beautiful in their own right. They also add to the careful realism of the portrait, one of the many reasons it remains so loved today.
There is little written evidence of the Laughing Cavalier painting before 1770.
Described in an 1865 Paris auction catalog as Portrait d’un Homme (“Portrait of a Man”), it later appeared in Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford’s personal collection.
Coined in the 1880s, the Laughing Cavalier title appeared over two hundred years after the painting’s creation. The simple title “Cavalier” first featured at the Frans Hals exhibition held by Bethnal Green Museum (London), celebrating Dutch Golden Age art. Designed to appeal to the sensibilities of a Victorian public, the title worked. The exhibition (with its enigmatic cavalier) was an immediate success.
Exhibited again at the Royal Academy in 1888, the portrait received its now well-known byname of the Laughing Cavalier.
It comes as no surprise that many people have subsequently queried this title. Indeed, the man is neither laughing or a cavalier. Despite this, his knowing smile, opulent dress and upturned mustache all add to a sense of cultured levity.
It was actually highly unusual for paintings of this period to show adults smiling. However, Frans Hals was unique. Broad smiles and informal postures can also be seen in Yonker Ramp and his Sweetheart (1623) and The Mulatto (1627).
The exact identity of the sitter is unknown.
We do know (from an inscription on the painting itself, reading “aetatis suae 26, anno 1624”) that the man was twenty-six years old.
Despite the military title, the man was likely a wealthy Dutch civilian. The Art Historian Pieter Biesboer suggested Tieleman Roosterman (a cloth merchant who’d sat for Hals before) as a possible candidate. This remains a mystery, however.
The man wears an opulent jacket, embroidered with motifs and emblems of love (including cornucopiae, bees, lovers’ knots and arrows). This strongly suggests an engagement portrait. Roosterman also married Catharina Brugmans seven years later (in 1631), further adding weight to this theory.
Frans Hals was born in 1582 or 1583. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but we do know that he was born in Antwerp.
He was a painter of the Dutch Golden Age who created some of the most recognizable and most admired portraits of the era.
Early Life and Training
Frans Hals was the son of Franchois Frans Hals van Mechelen (a cloth merchant) and his wife Adriaentje van Geertenryck.
The family were reasonably well-off but fled the city after 1585 after the “Fall of Antwerp” – a Protestant siege of the city which took place during the Dutch Revolt. This was a failed uprising against the Spanish rulers. After the surrender, anyone suspected of Protestant or Dutch sympathies had four years grace to settle their business affairs and leave the city.
The Hals family settled in Haarlem in the new Dutch Republic, where Frans Hals remained for the rest of his working life. He pursued art from an early age and studied with the Flemish master Karel van Mander. Mander worked in the mannerist style, a movement that took its inspiration from the classicism and naturalism of Renaissance masters. With an intense focus on style and technique however, Mannerist works often result in complex poses and compositions – with elongated limbs and stylized facial features.
Despite this early experience, Frans Hals paintings reflect few mannerist techniques. One of his earliest known paintings is a Portrait of Jacobus Zaffius (1611). A highly realistic portrayal of a Catholic pastor, it set the tone for much of Hals’ later works.
Establishing a Career
Hals joined the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke in 1610 and earnt a modest income as an art restorer for Haarlem city council. He began painting portraits of wealthy citizens, including Willem Heythuijsen (1634) – a local prosperous cloth merchant. Hals also quickly developed a reputation as a preeminent wedding portrait painter, amply demonstrated in his Portrait of Joseph Coymans and the Wife of Joseph Coymans (1644).
Hals was famed for his style of intimate realism with characteristic loose brushwork. His group portraits were particularly notable for depicting every figure as a unique individual, each posed in a different way. In works such as The Officers of The St Adrian Militia Company (1633) the faces aren’t idealized, with each personality shining through. Today, this painting remains one of the leading attractions of the Frans Hals Museum.
The earlier Banquet of The Officers of The St George Militia Company (1627) depicted the military men in an incredibly unusual, informal manner. Despite the seeming informality, each figure patriotically wears the colors of the Dutch flag (orange, white and blue).
Frans Hals married Anneke Harmensdochter around 1610. She sadly died just five years later, shortly after the birth of the couple’s third child. Hals then employed the young daughter of a local fishmonger to look after his children. This was Lysbeth Reyniers, and they married in 1617. The couple wed in a small village church just outside of Haarlem. Lysbeth was already eight months pregnant which was a scandal for the time.
Despite an unconventional start, the couple enjoyed a happy marriage and had eight children together.
Frans Hals Famous Portrait Paintings
Frans Hals didn’t solely paint the wealthy upper classes – he depicted all levels of society with unflinching honesty. Early paintings such as Two Boys Singing (1925), The Mulatto (1627) and The Merry Drinker (1628) demonstrate Hals’ spirited brushwork and vivid color palette. Works such as the serious Young Man with a Skull (1926) contrast with the carousing Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart (1623). The skull serves as an appropriate “memento mori” (a reminder of death) amidst his sitters’ characteristically alcohol-fueled rosy cheeks.
Later Frans Hals works employ more muted tones, with greys and blacks predominating. This was largely due to the dress and stylistic preferences of his protestant sitters. The darker palette is especially evident in later group portraits such as Regents of The St Elizabeth Hospital of Haarlem (1641).
Frans Hals Laughing Cavalier
No introduction to the life and works of Frans Hals would be complete without mention of his most famous portrait painting, The Laughing Cavalier. Painted in 1624, it’s an extraordinarily charismatic portrait. Depicting a smiling man with an upturned moustache, his eyes are said to uncannily follow viewers from side to side. Frans Hals utilizes his skillful yet spontaneous brushwork and bold color palette to astounding effect in the painting. The detailing of the man’s expensive silk costume and embroidered sleeves are particularly masterful.
Despite the name, the sitter’s identity is unknown. The Laughing Cavalier epithet originated in the Victorian era. This was after it caused a stir whilst exhibited at the opening of the Bethnal Green Museum in 1872-5. Most modern scholars believe the man is likely a member of one of the many local militias. There are suggestions he could be Tieleman Roosterman however, who frequently sat for Hals.
Later Life and Legacy
Frans Hals paintings were incredibly popular during his lifetime. Despite this, he enjoyed such a long career that his artwork began to go out of fashion. As a result, the artist experienced financial difficulties later in life.
A local baker took Frans Hals to court in 1652 for unsettled debt. The subsequent inventory of Frans Hals’ seized property only consisted of mattresses and cushions, one table and five paintings depicting himself and his sons. Hals was largely destitute from this point onwards. Awarded a small annual payment of 200 florins by Haarlem city in 1664, his financial situation was remediated somewhat in his final years. This was a rare gift, a sign of the artist's previous success and reputation.
Hals died two years later in 1666, at the age of eighty-three. Buried at St Bavo’s Church in Haarlem, he remains alongside his first wife. Hals' surviving widow applied for aid at a local almshouse, where she lived out her days.
Today, Frans Hals paintings are celebrated and championed by the Frans Hals Museum. With two locations (both in the center of modern-day Haarlem), the museum displays a wide variety of Dutch Golden Age art as well as contemporary artists from around the world. With a permanent Frans Hals exhibition, it’s well worth a visit for any lover of the artist.
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