Opening this week at The Wallace Collection, Frans Hals: The Male Portrait is the first-ever show to focus solely on Hals’s portraits of men posing on their own. The iconic Laughing Cavalier forms the centrepiece of this exhibition and places it within the broader context of Hals’s depictions of male sitters.
the exhibition focuses on individuals and their self-presentation. – Dr Lelia Packer
Frans Hals (c.1582/3–1666) is one of the greatest masters of the Dutch Golden Age, praised by his contemporaries for his capacity to paint lifelike portraits that seem ‘to live and breathe’. In this exhibition, The Wallace Collection celebrates Hals’s most famous and beloved, yet still enigmatic, painting, The Laughing Cavalier (1624).
The historic purchase of The Laughing Cavalier in 1865 by the 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800– 1870), the Wallace Collection’s principal founder, was instrumental in the revival of Frans Hals during the 19th century. Before this, Hals had been lost to obscurity. At a sale in Paris, Lord Hertford sensationally outbid Baron James de Rothschild (1792–1868), paying the astronomical sum of 51,000 francs for the picture (more than six times the estimate). The publicity around the sale led to the immediate fame of the painting and of Hals, causing prices of his works to soar.
This iconic image has never been seen together with other works by the artist. The exhibition brings together over a dozen of the artist’s best male portraits from collections across the UK, Europe, and North America, making this the first major international loan exhibition at the Wallace Collection.
The show aims to demonstrate how Hals completely revolutionised the male portrait through more than 50 years of his career through pose and virtuosic painterly technique. Hals created something entirely new and fresh from the finely painted early works to the restricted palette of later years with the bolder, broader, and more fluid brushwork that inspired the Impressionists. In addition, he infused his works with a vitality and animated presence that was, at the time, entirely new to portraiture.
Exhibition Curator Dr Lelia Packer adds, “This exhibition gives us an opportunity to marvel at Hals’s technical virtuosity and explore the notion of manhood in 17th-century Holland, and the ‘male gaze’ when it is turned on men. As well as addressing notions of gender and masculinity, the exhibition also focuses on individuals and their self-presentation. We have assembled a fantastic group of proud and determined figures, each of whom vie for our attention and communicate their stories through their very deliberate portrayals.”
Exhibits date from the beginning of Hals’s career in the 1610s right up to the end of his life in 1666. The earliest work from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham (Portrait of a Man, 1610-14), is sombre in mood. In contrast, the latest in date, from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Portrait of a Man, 1660-6), is almost like a painting by the 19th-century artist Édouard Manet, so loose and experimental is his technique. Each portrait carries its own striking individuality, communicating its sitter’s identity through pose, gaze, and costume.
While The Laughing Cavalier has been described as the most handsome man in art history, featuring in countless advertisements and even the London taxi ‘knowledge’ test, plus books and plays, we know very little about him. We do not know for certain who he was, and until now the painting has never been technically analysed.
A highlight of the exhibition will be the opportunity to study The Laughing Cavalier side by side with Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman (1634, Cleveland Museum of Art) for the very first time. It has been proposed that the wealthy Haarlem textile merchant was the same figure as the ‘Cavalier’. His luxurious and beautifully embroidered costume – a hallmark of many of these portraits – is certainly fitting for a man of his profession. So, could Tieleman Roosterman be The Laughing Cavalier? Visitors will soon be able to make up their own minds.
Director of the Wallace Collection, Dr Xavier Brays, says “This exhibition – the Wallace’s first major international Old Master exhibition – is a momentous event in our ambitious new programme and is directly connected with the Collection’s new ability to lend artworks to our colleagues at home and internationally. It felt only fitting that we should honour our most beloved and enigmatic portrait with this unprecedented study of his unique cultural and art-historical influence, as well as to reunite him with his ‘friends’ from the collections of our wide ranging and eternally generous lenders.”
About Frans Hals
Born in Antwerp in 1582/3, Frans Hals’s family moved to Haarlem around 1586, where he remained for the rest of his life. By the turn of the 17th-century, due to many professionals moving north to avoid religious persecution (an exodus that included numerous artists) Haarlem became a prominent cosmopolitan capital and vibrant artistic centre. Hals worked mainly as a portraitist, but during the 1620s and early 1630s he also painted genre scenes. Hals’s patrons were predominantly from Haarlem’s elite, and included the city’s militia companies, burgomasters, patricians, and wealthy citizens, such as brewers and merchants employed in the successful beer and cloth industries that constituted the city’s main areas of commercial production. Hals’s unique ability to represent his sitters in a fleeting moment gained him an enthusiastic clientele and a distinctive niche within Haarlem’s portrait market, which he dominated for several decades, until his death in 1666
The exhibition is supported by The Weston Culture Fund
Frans Hals: The Male Portrait, The Wallace Collection 22 September 2021 – 30 January 2022 £14