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.

Internet Explorer Channel Network
News Related

OTHER NEWS

Dawn Staley credited Megan Rapinoe and the US women's soccer team's equal pay fight for helping her get a historic payday

© Sean Rayford/AP Images Dawn Staley. Sean Rayford/AP Images Dawn Staley earned a 7-year, $22.4 million payday to keep coaching the South Carolina Gamecocks. The historic contract makes her one ... Read more »

FBI: Items linked to Brian Laundrie found in Florida park

© Provided by Associated Press FILE – This Aug. 12, 2021 file photo from video provided by The Moab Police Department shows Brian Laundrie talking to a police officer after ... Read more »

Food prices rose nearly 4% in September. These products saw the biggest jump

The country’s annual rate of inflation reached its highest level since 2003 last month, Statistics Canada said Wednesday, amid ongoing supply chain disruptions in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. © ... Read more »

Samsung now lets you design your own flip phone

Smartphone design hasn’t varied much in years and customers are typically beholden to whatever decisions manufacturers make. © Samsung Samsung’s new customizable Flip 3 smartphone But during a virtual press ... Read more »

The Safest Bedside Cribs to Make Those First Nights With Your Baby Easier

When you first bring home your new baby, getting them to sleep a few hours at a stretch each night feels like climbing Everest. The bleary-eyed days as a new ... Read more »

California Gov. Newsom issues executive order to address supply chain congestion

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Wednesday signed an executive order to address supply chain congestion at shipping ports in the state. © Getty Images California Gov. Newsom issues executive ... Read more »

Google's Pixel 6 is here, but should you buy a Pixel 3, 4 or 5 instead?

This summer I faced a dilemma: My Google Pixel 3 XL was on its last legs. Its battery was a pale shadow of its former self. Its USB-C port failed to ... Read more »

Coastal Carolina vs Appalachian State odds: College football picks, Week 8 predictions from model on 22-9 roll

The 14th-ranked Coastal Carolina Chanticleers will try to keep rolling Wednesday night when they visit the Appalachian State Mountaineers for a Sun Belt college football matchup. The Chanticleers (6-0) lead ... Read more »

Pete Buttigieg Says Tucker Carlson's 'Negativity' Toward His Parental Leave Was 'Unfortunate'

© Provided by People DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Pete Buttigieg is championing paid leave for new parents while pushing back on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s criticism of taking time off to ... Read more »

Mets SP Carlos Carrasco has surgery to remove bone fragment from elbow

New York Mets starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco joined the club via last January’s trade with the Cleveland Indians that resulted in the Mets also acquiring star shortstop Francisco Lindor. He ... Read more »

What we know about Lofton Hazelwood, the 18-year-old found dead inside fraternity house

The University of Kentucky community is searching for answers a day after an 18-year-old freshman died at a fraternity house on the school’s Lexington campus. © Provided photo Thomas ‘Lofton’ Hazelwood ... Read more »

New Mexico awards $157M in grants to child care providers

© Provided by Associated Press FILE – In this July 1, 2021, file photo, children wait for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to make an announcement about child care subsidies in ... Read more »

Enter the Zuckerverse? Social media churns with new names for Facebook

© Reuters/Carlos Jasso FILE PHOTO: Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg addresses the audience in Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service in Washington By Nivedita Balu and Antonio ... Read more »

At least 80 hurt in Eswatini pro-democracy protests

© – A person who was shot by Swazi police is carried away on a stretcher in Mbabane on October 20, 2021 At least 80 people were injured in Eswatini ... Read more »

West Virginia Man Shot Pregnant Woman in the Torso with Double-Barreled Shotgun, Killed Her and Unborn Son: Prosecutors

© Provided by Law & Crime Mitchell Caleb Hughes via WVRJCF Mitchell Caleb Hughes A West Virginia man was arrested early Tuesday morning after authorities say he fatally shot a ... Read more »

Donald Trump and Joe Biden Neck and Neck in 2024 Presidential Polling

© Morry Gash/Jim Watson/AFP This combination of pictures created on October 22, 2020 shows US President Donald Trump (L) and Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden ... Read more »

Dairy Queen Is Suing This Company Over the Name "Blizzard"

The parent company of the fast-food and ice cream chain Dairy Queen is taking office supply company W.B. Mason to court over the name of its bottled water. © Provided ... Read more »

Watch live: Markeith Loyd trial jury selection continues

Jury selection in the trial of Markeith Loyd continues Wednesday at the Orange County Courthouse, accused of the 2017 killing of Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton. Watch jury selection below ... Read more »

EXPLAINER: How jury selection works in Arbery slaying trial

1 / 5Ahmaud Arbery Georgia TrialThea Brooks stands in front of a mural of her slain nephew, Ahmaud Arbery, in Brunswick Ga., Oct. 5, 2021. Brooks, who calls the killing ... Read more »

Baltimore Police charge a man in connection with a March stabbing death

Police have arrested and charged a 40-year-old man with murder in relation to the stabbing death of another man in North Baltimore in March. The Baltimore Police Department wrote in ... Read more »

Sinn Fein claims NI destinations excluded from Irish tourism initiatives

The island of Ireland is failing to fulfil its tourism potential due to the exclusion of Northern Ireland from key promotional initiatives, Sinn Fein has claimed. © Provided by PA ... Read more »

People are spending more on jewellery now than before the pandemic: Colin Shah

© Provided by Business Today People are spending more on jewellery now than before the pandemic: Colin Shah India’s gem & jewellery exports have been picking up since the start ... Read more »

Netflix and naps: This company is offering Dh121,000 per year to lie in bed all day

© Provided by Khaleej Times Netflix and naps: This company is offering Dh121,000 per year to lie in bed all day How often have you groaned and dragged yourself out ... Read more »

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed receives phone call from President of Syria

© Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, received a phone call from Syrian ... Read more »

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed visits Holy See pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

© Rashed Al Mansoori / Ministry of Presidential Affairs Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, visits the Holy See ... Read more »

Britain's top civil servants accused of 'gross disinterest' in Afghanistan debacle

© US MARINES British MPs have severely criticsed top civil servants for remaining on holiday during the Kabul evacuation in August. Reuters Britain’s most senior civil servants have been accused ... Read more »

Look: Sheikh Mohammed visits Gitex 2021 as female coders make their mark

© Provided by Khaleej Times Look: Sheikh Mohammed visits Gitex 2021 as female coders make their mark His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice-President and Prime Minister ... Read more »

Public transport revolution 'just the ticket' to a greener future

© Provided by The National Mohamed Mezghani, Secretary-General of the International Association of Public Transport, says the sector is experiencing a paradoxical situation. Photo: International Association of Public Transport Cities ... Read more »

Expo 2020 Dubai: Travel through past, present and future at 'timeless' Peru pavilion

© Provided by Khaleej Times Expo 2020 Dubai: Travel through past, present and future at ‘timeless’ Peru pavilion The Peru pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai takes visitors on a sensory ... Read more »

Army reservist booted from military over Capitol riot charges: report

Timothy Hale-Cusanelli who is known for sporting a “Hitler mustache” has been the first service member forced out of the military after being charged with taking part in the US ... Read more »

Limit sleep to 7.5 hours a night to delay Alzheimer's, says study

© Tara Moore/Getty Images Sleep – Tara Moore/Getty Images People should get no more than seven and a half hours of sleep a night in order to delay the onset ... Read more »

Florida sheriff tells killers to ‘chill out, drink a 7UP, eat a MoonPie' as murder rate soars

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd talks about the spike in recent murders to WFLA News Channel 8. WFLA News Channel 8 A Florida sheriff had an interesting response to the ... Read more »

Inquest unable to establish exact cause of brain damage in baby Sophie who died 19 hours after her birth

An inquest has been unable to establish the exact cause of how a baby girl, who showed no warning signs of any life-threatening condition, acquired severe brain damage which resulted ... Read more »

Rotunda Hospital will relax restrictions for antenatal appointments from 1 November

© Alamy Stock Photo DUBLIN’S ROTUNDA HOSPITAL is to relax restrictions for antenatal appointments from 1 November. However, only one nominated companion or partner is allowed to visit the hospital ... Read more »

White man avoids arrest after shooting dead Moroccan immigrant

© GoFundMe/Adil Dghoughi/Othmane Dghoughi Adil Dghoughi, who was shot in Texas – GoFundMe/Adil Dghoughi/Othmane Dghoughi The family of a Moroccan man who was fatally shot in Texas have appealed for ... Read more »

‘Mini tornado' hits UK town causing damage to houses and cars

© claireearnsha10/TWITTER tornado.jpg A “mini tornado” has hit a town in Cheshire causing damage to properties and cars. Dramatic clips posted on social media showed the destruction caused by the ... Read more »

Android 12: How to download and install Google's new phone OS on Pixel

Google released Android 12 yesterday during its Pixel launch event. The new operating system includes several new features and changes, as well as new privacy features. The most notable update ... Read more »

Welsh Rugby Union unveil surprise new 'green' Wales home and away kits

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) have unveiled new ‘eco-sustainable’ home and away kits which will be in use right up until the next Rugby World Cup in 2023. Images of ... Read more »

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer explains Manchester United team selection vs Atalanta

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has recalled Scott McTominay and Fred to the Manchester United side to face Atalanta due to the energy they can offer in midfield. United are in a ... Read more »

Motor racing-Formula One statistics for the U.S. Grand Prix

(Reuters) – Formula One statistics for Sunday’s U.S. Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. The race is the 17th round of the 22-race world championship: ... Read more »