Where? Great Gallery on the first floor of the Wallace Collection
What do you see? A confident 26-year old officer portrayed in three-quarters view. He looks directly at the viewer while his left hand rests on his hip. He wears an expensive silk costume with rich and colorful embroidery. His coat is largely black with white, red, and yellow patterns. Unlike most of his other paintings, Hals put a lot of effort into the details of the costume. Moreover, he painted the elaborate white ruff around his neck and white lace on the sleeves in great detail. Around his waist, the sitter wears a black silk sash. He has a black hat with a broad brim with curly hair underneath. He has a goat patch and an expressive curly mustache. On the top right is an inscription reading “Æ’ TA SVA’ 26 A ͦ1624,” which is Latin for “aetatis suae 26, anno 1624.” This indicates that the sitter was 26 years old and that Hals painted this portrait in the year 1624.
Backstory: There has been much speculation about the identity of the young man in this painting, but no consensus has been reached. Most people agree, based on his costume, that the man is probably an officer in one of the shooting guilds. One interesting theory is that the young man is Tieleman Roosterman, who is also the subject of the 1634 Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman by Hals in the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 1865, Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, paid £2,040 for this painting, which was the highest price paid for a work of Frans Hals at that time. However, for Seymour-Conway this was just pocket change as he earned about £250,000 per year. His son, Sir Richard Wallace – whose art collection forms the majority of the Wallace Collection – inherited the painting in 1870.
The Laughing Cavalier? The title of this painting is a bit of mystery. It was originally called Portrait of an Officer. In 1871, it was called The Cavalier at an exhibition in London. At an exhibition in 1888, it was listed under its present title, The Laughing Cavalier, but it is not clear why this title was chosen. While the officer has a confident expression, he is certainly not laughing. It is possible that before a cleaning of the painting in 1884 the officer appeared to be laughing more than after the cleaning. Moreover, there is no evidence that the sitter is a cavalier.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals the Elder (1582/1583 – 1666) was a Dutch Baroque painter from Haarlem, The Netherlands. When Hals painted The Laughing Cavalier, he was quite successful and a respected painter in his hometown. While Hals primarily painted portraits, he occasionally liked to paint some happy characters that he met in bars or on the street. This was a great way for him to practice painting the emotions of his sitters which he could then use for his commissioned portraits. Whereas many other painters have a problem painting a genuine smile on the face of their subjects, this was one of the specialties of Hals. Almost effortlessly, he could paint the smile of a young child or a drunk man, the unrestrained smile of a crazy person, or the mischievous smile of a musician. This last kind of smile is nicely illustrated in The Lute Player by Hals in Louvre. Lesser-known about Frans Hals is that he also painted a few religious paintings. During the 20th century portraits of the four evangelists have been discovered. One example of this series of four paintings is Saint John the Evangelist in the Getty Museum.
Fun fact: Frans Hals liked to enjoy a drink in the tavern. In 1718, one of Hals’ first biographers, Arnold Houbraken, wrote the following story about Hals. His students repeatedly picked him up from the bar late at night to prevent any harm from happening to him on his way home. When Hals arrived home, no matter how drunk he was, he prayed and ended by saying “Dear Lord, bring me to Heaven at a young age.” His students were concerned whether he meant this or not and decided to test him out. They drilled four holes in the ceiling above Hals’ bed and put some ropes through the holes which they attached to the bed. The next evening, after Hals had been drinking again, they put him in bed. Hals said the same prayer. After his prayer, his students pulled the ropes and lifted his bed into the air. Hals, who noticed that he was being lifted, proclaimed: “Not so quick, dear Lord, not so quick, not so quick….” Hals fell asleep and the students loosened the ropes such that Hals would not notice anything the next morning. Hals, who was unaware of the prank his students pulled on him, did not use that prayer again. Except for Houbraken’s story, there is no further evidence that Hals was a drunk and most likely this story is just a legend.