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Revisiting an old friend – The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals

I was in the Wallace Collection a couple of weeks ago having a look at the delightful Manolo Blahnik exhibition.  The shoes are dotted throughout the exhibition which means there is a kind of treasure hunt to find them.  One of them was placed in front of this famous portrait.  Now, The Laughing Cavalier was ubiquitous when I was growing up.  It turned up on biscuit tins and calendars all the time.  Because it was so familiar, I was a bit sniffy when I saw it up on the wall, but I thought I might as well have a look as it was there in front of me.  I am glad I did, because it really does reward close attention.  Frans Hals could really paint fabric.

A bit of information about the painting first.  Of course, the sitter isn’t laughing and he isn’t a cavalier.  Apparently, the motifs on his sleeve suggest that this might have been a betrothal portrait, and he was probably a merchant of some description.  The Wallace Collection website states:

In this exuberant half-length portrait, a young man poses, arm rakishly akimbo, against a plain grey background. The painting is inscribed with the date (1624) and the sitter’s age (26). The work is unique in Hals’s male portraiture for the rich colour that is largely imparted by the sitter’s flamboyant costume: a doublet embroidered with fanciful motifs in white, gold and red thread, with a gilded rapier pommel visible at the crook of his elbow…

By the early nineteenth century, Hals’s reputation had fallen into relative obscurity. Despite this, the portrait became the object of a furious bidding battle between the 4th Marquess of Hertford and Baron James de Rothschild at a Paris auction in 1865. It was acquired by Lord Hertford for the princely sum of 51.000 francs (about £2,040), an event which proved to be a turning point in the artist’s critical reputation. At the Royal Academy exhibition of 1888, the painting was exhibited with the title ‘The Laughing Cavalier.’

What caught my eye was the fantastic painting of the sleeve, particularly the embroidery, and also the lace.

 

I love those buttons and the lace on his cuffs.  Also, look at the way the ruff is painted:

Look at the gorgeous way he has painted the black silk:

And finally, the lovely frill of lace in the lower left-hand corner of the frame:

I think this is just too gorgeous to walk past.  Here’s the Manolo Blahnik that went with it:

Now, I can see why they paired the picture with Blahnik’s interpretation of the riding boot, but I think it misses the point.  Although materials and craft employed here are exquisite, this portrait is not about restraint.  It is flamboyant and rejoicing in excess.  I think it’s been matched with the title.

Just glorious.  Next time I go to the Wallace, I will go and have another look.

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