Smiling Cavalier


Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, 1865

From Literary Review:

Frans Hals was born in Antwerp in around 1582, moved to Haarlem when he was three, found fame rather late, in his mid-thirties, died in 1666 – and was forgotten, at least outside his native country. The apparent lack of finish in his work made it unfashionable in the eyes of connoisseurs and collectors until interest in his paintings grew again in the mid-19th century. In 1865 Hals’s Laughing Cavalier was bought for a vast sum by Lord Hertford and exhibited in London to huge acclaim. Soon afterwards it entered the Wallace Collection.

The funny thing about the Laughing Cavalier is that the cavalier isn’t laughing at all. He has a merry eye but is surely smiling, not laughing, beneath those famous whiskers. And that was just as it should be in 17th-century Haarlem, at least if you were of some social standing. Hals loved to show his sitters in good humour. Along with the legendary brushwork, this is the most distinguishing feature of his work. But heaven forfend that his sitters should actually laugh. Remember the advice of the 18th-century Lord Chesterfield to his son: ‘I would heartily wish, that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill-manners; it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter.’

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, 1630

There was a crucial distinction between smiling and laughing and it had long been entrenched in European societies. We seem to have forgotten it, but it is one of the secrets to interpreting Hals’s art, where posh people smile and the lower classes laugh – indeed, in Hals’s pictures, they are often laughing their heads off. Hals never blurred the distinction. Steven Nadler rightly observes that ‘Hals’s oeuvre … may contain more laughs and smiles than that of any other painter in history’, but in this otherwise painstaking book there is no awareness of the difference between the two things (although in fairness, I am not sure anyone else thinks about it these days either). It was something that everyone at the time was acutely aware of. In Judith Leyster’s Self-Portrait of 1630, for example, the artist turns towards us with a smile on her lips, while on her easel is a painting of a fiddler laughing fit to bust.

“Smile & Substance”, Robin Simon, Literary Review

Comments are closed.