Not really laughing — more like an arrogant swagger. Not really a cavalier — rather a portrait of someone who is probably dressed up for a special occasion. But Hals was not responsible for the title — that was attached in the nineteenth century. It was bought in 1865 by the 4th Marquess of Hertford who bid against Baron de Rothschild for it at auction. The marquess ended up paying an enormous sum for the picture, by an artist who, at that time, was unknown. Indeed, this purchase was the spur to renewed interest in Hals and since then his reputation as one of the great Dutch painters has never been in doubt.
His loose painterly style is the key to his rediscovery but also the reason for the prolonged posthumous obscurity. During the eighteenth century his work had been thought of as unfinished or not up to the mark. This view had persisted into the nineteenth century until the advent of Realism and early Impressionism opened the eyes of connoisseurs and critics to his manifest qualities.
Although his reputation as a painter was resurrected in the nineteenth century, scholars researching his life seemed to uncover a tale of dissolute drunkenness and profligacy. However recent research suggests that there might have been some (not unreasonable) scholarly confusion between the painter and a cousin with the same name who is recorded in Haarlem as having been a drunken wife-beater. Nevertheless, there seems no doubt that Hals was plagued with constant money problems throughout his life. It is diverting to wonder if a putative devil-may-care attitude to life on the part of the artist may have played its part in the production of many paintings from his brush which seem to be suffused with a certain insouciant gaiety.
The Laughing Cavalier is one such portrait. It may have been painted at the time of the sitter’s betrothal, or it may be that he wished no more than to show off his finery. But it seems likely that some amorous intent lay behind the painting as a number of motifs used in the Netherlands as symbols of love appear in the embroidery on the jacket — arrows, bees and lovers’ knots among others. This could also account for the self-satisfied look on his face! The embroidery, together with the man’s expression, and the portrayal of his ruff and lace cuffs provide a challenge for the most accomplished of artists, a challenge which was triumphantly taken up by Hals.
1624 Hendrick ter Brugghen: The Bagpipe Player, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum
1625 Peter Paul Rubens: ‘Le Chapeau de Paille’, London, National Gallery
1627 Guido Reni: The Immaculate Conception, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art