The [Not]Laughing [Non]Cavalier
Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier is one of the most iconic portraits in art history. Even those who don’t know it, know it! But have you ever noticed that the figure isn’t a cavalier? In fact, he’s not even laughing.
Introducing Frans Hals
Frans Hals was born in Antwerp, then part of the Spanish Netherlands. Like many of the era, his family fled Antwerp during its fall a few years after Hals’ birth, settling in Haarlem.
As a teenager, Hals became a member of the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke, earning money as an art restorer before breaking into the world of portraiture.
Hals elevated the genre. There’s a photographic quality to how he captures a moment, depicting his contemporaries in such a way that we immediately relate to them. Rather than viewing something still and static, we have interrupted these figures in their lives.
None of Hals’ drawings have survived, and it’s likely he never actually sketched out his figures first, preferring instead to put paint immediately to canvas.
Breaking Down The Painting
Meant to be seen from below so that he towers over us, the figure oozes confidence. Look at that left hand on his hip, the coy expression on his face, the upturned moustache, rosy cheeks, pink lips, curly hair and flamboyant costume.
The figure’s outfit is made up of elements newly introduced to society. The ruff around his neck, for example, was a modern alternative to the stiff, heavily pleated ones worn by the Dutch at the time. And the panes in the upper sleeves of his doublet – which likely continued along his back – were introduced in the early 1620s, revealing a white linen shirt beneath.
His broad brimmed, upturned hat and the rapier at his left elbow are symbols of power, essential parts of male dress. The rapier begins above his elbow, with the hilt beneath his arm. Look carefully and you can see the criss-cross pattern along the plate. What’s important is that the entire thing is gilded, matching the thread and buttons on his doublet. Fully gilded rapiers were rare, enforcing the idea that he was a man of significant wealth.
It was the black cloak, however, draped over his left shoulder and wrapped around his body, that caught the eye of another famous painter. When Vincent van Gogh saw the Hals’ masterpiece, he exclaimed:
“Frans Hals must have had 27 blacks!”
But – ultimately – it’s not us doing the looking. It’s him. Those dark blue eyes are fixed on us, judging.
While the name of the figure has long been lost to us, we do know his age. Look in the top right corner and you will see the inscription:
Æ TA SVA 26 Å 1624
This is Latin for –
AETATIS SUAE 26, ANNO 1624
– which translates to “At the age of 26, in 1624.”
Marriage portraits traditionally have the male figure turning rightwards, facing their wife. That our unnamed hero faces left suggests that he is currently a bachelor. This is reinforced by the fact that married men, at the time, dressed soberly. His chosen attire is clearly NOT sober.
Latest trends came to the Netherlands from France and were only available to the Dutch elite. His extravagant clothing tells us that he is part of this rarefied group. But look carefully and you can see flames, arrows, bees, cornucopia, and lovers’ knots covering the embroidery in his doublet. These symbols are often associated with fortune, strength and virtue, but are also heavily symbolic of pleasure, love and the pains of love.
What does this tell us?
While we don’t know his name, we know this well-to-do 26-year-old is likely about to bid goodbye to his bachelor lifestyle.
What’s In A Name?
The figure is clearly not a Cavalier. He wouldn’t have supported King Charles I of England, which is where the term was first used, nor is he wearing the clothing associated with the soldiers and horsemen that followed. He’s also not laughing – nor smiling!
In the 19th Century, the painting was on sale in Paris for an estimated 8,000 francs. The 4th Marquis of Hartford, Richard Seymour-Conway, however, paid over 50,000 francs for the piece. Suddenly, the painting was all anyone could talk about, plastered across the front pages of newspapers. At the time, it was known as the Portrait of a Man. It was only in 1888 that the Royal Academy gave it the name we use today.
So how did the portrait get its title?
We don’t know, but we can speculate. The term ‘cavalier’ is used for one who regards people as inferior. Someone with a dismissive attitude. The figure looks over us, posing haughtily in his expensive clothing. Could he be cavalier rather a Cavalier?
For the first time since its acquisition, the Wallace Collection is loaning out the Laughing Cavalier. You can currently see him as part of the Credit Suisse exhibition on Frans Hals at the National Gallery, London, until 21st January 2024.