By Catriona Miller
Some art works are too well-known for their own good. With a major Frans Hals exhibition showing at the National Gallery in London, now is the perfect time to look again at the artist’s most famous work.
Constable's Haywain, Gainsborough's Blue Boy, Whistler’s Mother – we’ve all seen them, we think we know them, we stop looking at them. Some artworks conquer this ubiquity with a kind of untouchable icon status: Michelangelo’s David perhaps. Yet for some, familiarity breeds contempt. Frans Hals’ Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman of 1624 is just such a case. You probably know him better as The Laughing Cavalier.
It is not just fine art which suffers from this kind of cultural fatigue. It is hard to think of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata without stifling a yawn. However, text and sound have two huge advantages over painting and sculpture. Every time we experience a live play or concert, it is slightly different. Shakespeare Live, a 2016 celebration of the playwright’s quatercentenary, included a sketch in which a number of famous actors read the start of the Hamlet soliloquy with differing and increasingly outlandish emphases. Even the same actor will probably never say it exactly the same way twice. In a recent interview, pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, who is currently touring Bach’s Goldberg Variations, discussed how each of his eighty-eight performances would inevitably be different. He wants to re-record the piece at the end of the tour to show how his interpretation has changed.
More significantly, reading or listening forces us to take time, to linger, to experience. The average gallery-goer spends about seventeen seconds in front of a painting, barely enough to say the first few lines of the Hamlet. If the image is new, we might linger; if it’s familiar, the chances are it will barely get a glance, and nowadays, it might even be looked at through a phone. London’s Tate Gallery has an online guide to slow-looking which argues: ‘if we really want to get to know a work of art, we need to spend time with it’, but the reality is that art galleries don’t encourage you to stop and stare. There are rarely any comfortable seats and the procession of works on the walls creates a natural procession of viewers dutifully walking from one to the next. The best art can hope for is a clean, a rehang or a change of location. Hals’ Unknown Gentleman has been given the benefit of new surroundings, with his temporary move across London from the rococo frivolity of the Wallace Collection to the National Gallery. It is time to take him, and his painter, more seriously.
The Laughing Cavalier was given his title by the Victorians, after he achieved celebrity status in a bidding war between the Marquess of Hertford and Baron Rothschild. Hertford ended up paying six times the auction estimate, and expensive art always makes headlines. The nineteenth century saw Hals’ popularity peak. Vermeer had yet gain his superstar status, and Hals’ was the only recognised rival to Rembrandt. Artists like Manet and Van Gogh were wowed by his interest in ordinary people and his very modern-looking, loose brushwork. In many ways The Cavalier is typical of Hals’ work: he was a portraitist who dabbled in so-called tronies (characterful, anonymous studies). This is clearly a commissioned portrait – an inscription top right gives the details that the sitter is twenty-six – but the Victorian title and the lack of a name, turns it into a generic image. Hals is unusual as an artist who paints smiles (and teeth), most famously with Malle Babbe, crude and cruel to modern eyes but once hugely popular. However, The Cavalier is not laughing. Is he even smiling, or just giving the illusion of it with his upturned moustache? If anything, he seems to have a slightly superior smirk, like a cad in an Ealing comedy.
Like many of Hals’ sitters, he is positioned against a plain background, cropped up against the front of the picture space, so he almost invades ours. The only sense of depth is a vague dark shadow in the right. Another regular Hals’ trick is the twisted pose, as if he is caught in the action of turning towards us, about to engage. What is less usual is the elaborate costume. Hals, painting in Protestant Haarlem, is known for his ‘twenty-seven blacks’, as Van Gogh put it. However, the Cavalier is almost a dandy, sporting the latest French fashions – soft lace collar, slashed sleeves – and clearly a man who spent money on clothes. Hals lavished huge attention on the expensive, intricately-worked lace cuffs, and the embroidery on the doublet where bees, arrows and flowers are clearly visible, perhaps symbolising a future marriage. These details literally pop out of the canvas.
Hals’ real skill, however, is in combining this precision with big, broad, visible brushstrokes, which from a distance give the illusion of vitality, texture and form, but which close-up look almost impressionistic and strikingly modern. Their sketchiness allows you to focus on the important, more precisely rendered facial features which effortlessly convey character and appearance. They also carry you straight back to the original performance of the painter standing in front of the easel. Hals' hand is in those brushstrokes, and through it, his character.
Looking at art can often feel like hard work. In one sense, the viewer of a painting has to take on an active role, like an actor or musician, interpreting the scene in front of them rather than just passively soaking it up. But Frans Hals makes it easy. He sets up a dialogue between himself, the sitter and the viewer. You get drawn in. You can imagine a conversation. You know whether you would like these people or not. Personally, I don't think The Laughing Cavalier and I would get on. But he makes a fantastic painting and he showcases a wonderful artist. He is well worth a second look.
Frans Hals is at the National Gallery, London, until 21st January 2024
About the Writer:
Catriona Miller is an independent art historian and writer on art based in the UK. She has taught and lectured on all aspects of art history and is currently researching women artists in British collections and issues of nationalism and identity in nineteenth-century landscape painting.