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Monday, 17 August 2015

HIGHLIGHTS: Frans Hals at The Wallace Collection, London

The Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals, 1624  ©The Wallace Collection, London
In this lively half-length portrait, an unknown sitter is depicted close to the picture plane against a plain, grey background. By the time the painting was completed, Hals had painted several portraits as well as a group portrait of a civic militia company. This work is considered Hals's most famous piece, exhibiting the skillful way he animates his subjects. The sitter has his hand on hip, which euxdes a self-confidence that characterises several of Hals's portraits as well as giving the painting more depth. Painted with both fine and broader brushwork, the painting is unique in the artist's oeuvre for its vibrant colour; the sitter wears an exuberant doublet covered with fanciful motifs and a striking gilded pommel is discernable at his elbow. 

The purpose of the portrait has never been fully established, although it is believed that the man's costume may provide us with useful clues. The motifs on his doublet, which are embroidered in gold, red and white thread, include arrows, lovers' knots and a flaming cornucopiae - all symbolic of the pleasures and sorrow of love. As connotations of courtship, it is possible that the work functions as a betrothal portrait, yet no companion piece has been found. The  motif of the Caduceus, an attribute of the Roman God Mercury, has also led art historians to believe that this alludes to commerce and thus that the work depicts the wealthy textile merchant Tieleman Roosterman, 

In 1865, the painting was at the centre of a bidding war at a Paris auction between 4th Marquess of Hertford and Baron James de Rothschild, acquired by the former for the wealthy sum of 51,000 francs. In 1888, it was given the title 'The Laughing Cavalier' when exhibited at the Royal Academy, which emphasises the conviviliaty of the portrait. This is reinforced by the low, commanding viewpoint and the sitter's pompous pose, upturned moustache and shining eyes. 

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