Van Gogh's hero: there's more to Frans Hals than The Laughing Cavalier

Not many of the world’s greatest works of art can be called funny. Yet The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals has an undeniable cocky humour. A painting of this unknown man has hung in London’s Wallace Collection since the 19th century, his flamboyant upward turned moustache and tiny point of a beard setting off the confident brightness of his eyes above a huge frilly ruff and a sleeve laced with gold. Now the gallery is about to celebrate its most famous painting in an exhibition offering a chance to look closer at other male portraits by Hals.

So what has his cavalier got to laugh about? Maybe what’s tickling him is the fact that a Dutch artist who died poor in 1666 would help inspire the birth of modern art. We’re conditioned to think of this as something that suddenly happened in 1900, but the Paris avant garde had already kicked away the foundations of the past. From Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet to Paul Cézanne, these 19th-century rebels pulverised convention and forced art into their brutal, ironic modern world of railways, brothels and absinthe. And the incendiary creator of The Laughing Cavalier was their hero.

It was an unlikely achievement for an artist whose themes were strictly limited. “He painted portraits,” wrote Vincent van Gogh of Hals in 1888, “nothing nothing nothing but that!” He goes on in his letter to the French artist Émile Bernard to detail the kind of portraits his compatriot produced: “Portraits of soldiers, gatherings of officers, portraits of magistrates assembled for the business of the republic, portraits of matrons with pink or yellow skin, wearing white bonnets … he painted the tipsy drinker, the old fishwife full of a witch’s mirth, the beautiful Gypsy whore, babies in swaddling clothes, the gallant, bon vivant gentleman …”

Frissons of filth … Gypsy Girl (La Bohémienne) by Frans Hal Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

This is a beautiful evocation of the paintings Hals created in a long but provincial career as the go-to professional portraitist in the small city of Haarlem in the first half of the 1600s. Hals was born in Antwerp, but his parents fled war-struck Flanders for the new Dutch Republic when he was small. Where the art of other European nations was made for courts and churches, Protestant, mercantile Holland had a middle-class art market and a huge appetite for pictures to decorate townhouses. Each city, in this small geographical area, seemed to spawn its own local geniuses, from Vermeer’s Delft to Rembrandt’s Leiden to Hals’s Haarlem. To cater for the demand for humble, everyday art, many painters specialised: some in painting cheeses, skulls and lobsters on a tabletop, others ships at sea, cows or flowers. Hals just did people.

Van Gogh’s impassioned prose captures the mundane magic of Hals; the unpretentious way he records a whole society. He compares Hals with one of his living heroes, the revolutionary 19th-century novelist Émile Zola, who set out to portray contemporary French life, syphilis and all. Simplicity appealed to Van Gogh. So he responded with feeling to the straightforwardness of Hals. It was an enthusiasm he shared with the radical French artists Courbet and Manet, who painted copies of works by Hals.

It is hard to grasp, today, exactly how new and staggeringly subversive 17th-century Dutch art looked to 19th-century eyes. Today, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is one of the world’s most renowned art destinations, and Dutch art is at the centre of hit novels and films such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch. But in 1800, Hals and Vermeer were both forgotten. Dutch painting of the 1600s was seen as too “low” to be important, too obsessed with dreary details of everyday life.

It was an art of localism, even parochialism. As Van Gogh makes clear in his list of Hals’s types, we know many of his paintings as anonymous images, not named people. Where we do know their identities they take us into a small narrow world, to meet the social winners and losers of 17th-century Haarlem. The Regents and Regentesses of the town’s almshouses stare back at us coldly from his two most famous group portraits that are still in the city’s Frans Hals Museum. But it wasn’t these dignitaries who attracted the socialist Courbet.

In 1869, Courbet saw a painting by Hals of a cackling old woman in pauper clothes, raising a huge pewter beer tankard while an owl perches on her shoulder. He was so impressed he sat down to copy its gnarled authenticity, one year before this visionary artist would risk his life and trash his career by joining the Paris Commune. Courbet was drawn to Hals’s portrait of an outsider but he didn’t know how radical this painting really was. The work he copied was thought in the 19th century to be an unknown woman or even a “tronie”, a kind of fictional portrait sometimes created as an experiment by Dutch artists. But the name Malle Babbe – “Mad Babs” – is written on it. Haarlem’s town archives reveal this was probably a real woman, named Barbara Claes, who was a patient in the local hospital for mental illness where one of Hals’s sons is also known to have lived. Courbet and Van Gogh felt her reality without knowing this. Malle Babbe is clearly “the old fishwife full of a witch’s mirth” Van Gogh describes.

It wasn’t just the art of Hals that fascinated these artists but his life. Behind his works, they discerned a wild-living bohemian, the mirror of themselves. Manet copied his painting of the Haarlem almshouse bosses. A legend grew up that Hals was an inmate of the almshouse, revenging himself on its overseers by portraying them harshly.

This is the kind of romantic myth art historians hate, but the few known facts about Hals do suggest he was an edgy character. After his first wife died, he remarried so quickly he may have already been in an extramarital relationship. His second wife was regularly arrested for fighting. He himself was constantly in debt. And if he didn’t die in the poorhouse, it was only because the city of Haarlem gave its respected painter financial support in old age. His unforgettable, compassionate painting of the “madwoman” Malle Babbe may actually show the sympathy of one outcast for another.

Yet it’s another painting that puts Hals at the very forefront of French modern art. La Bohémienne, or The Gipsy Girl, is Paris’s more disreputable Laughing Cavalier. This painting of a young woman in coarsely made, loosely painted clothes that mainly serve to set off her breasts as she grins broadly was left to the Louvre by Louis La Caze in 1869. And while he seems to have thought it was an innocent picture of a “gipsy girl”, its real content was pretty obvious to Van Gogh: this is the painting he describes, in the language of his time, as “the beautiful gipsy whore”.

The unmistakable provocation and titillation of Hals’ portrait of a 17th-century sex worker takes us to the crux of his modernity. It is clear what the avant garde loved about it: that frisson of poverty and sex. The descendants of this defiant 17th-century outsider in French modern art include Degas’s Absinthe Drinker and Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre women. The driving force of French avant garde culture was reality. To see and acknowledge the actual world around them in all its filth and glory drove writers and artists alike.

It’s that raw reality Vincent saw in La Bohémienne. Even before he saw Paris, he once had a row with his clergyman father about the dangers of French literature, and he lived for a time with a sex worker, in search of the bohemian life. Hals for him was as real and untamed as a dirty French novel. La Bohémienne connects Hals with that side of modern art, but it also explains where he got his bold reality. Like other Dutch artists, he was aware of a recently dead Italian art rebel. In Rome in the 1590s, the turbulent Caravaggio painted male sex workers dangerously tempting the cardinals who paid for art. Caravaggio traumatically confronted painting with the real. A generation of Dutch artists from Utrecht, whose work Hals would have known, made the journey to Rome, studied his style and brought it home, but the Utrecht Caravaggists capture Caravaggio’s light and shadows without really understanding the risky nature of his art.

Hals does. La Bohémienne translates the daring of Caravaggio’s sex workers into a heterosexual image. And there are other signs of his debt to Caravaggio. In his painting A Young Man with a Skull, in London’s National Gallery, the youth sticks out a hand straight towards us so it seems to be coming out of the painting. It uncannily resembles a similarly jarring hand in Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, in the same museum.

This is the naturalism that made Hals a hero for the first modern artists. Like Caravaggio he breaks the barrier between painting and life. The Laughing Cavalier brought that genius to Britain – direct from the avant garde Paris where Hals was rediscovered. In 1865 it was auctioned in Paris, just as Hals’s newfound stardom exploded there. The 4th Marquis of Hertford, a libertine Englishman abroad, bought it and showed it in London, where it got its nickname. His treasures were to be preserved after his death as the Wallace Collection.

Today Hals is slightly less revered than Rembrandt or Vermeer. He has the bad luck that one of his most splendid works, The Meagre Company, hangs next to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum. He seems eternally sentenced to be the second best Dutch portraitist of the 17th century. But Hals has a couple of virtues Rembrandt doesn’t. He can make you laugh. And that lightness is the most modern thing about him of all, as we glance at his fast brushstrokes and catch an amused eye looking back.

Frans Hals: The Male Portrait is at the Wallace Collection from 22 September to 30 January.

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