The laughing cavalier painting

The Laughing Cavalier: The Story and Analysis

The oddly smug ‘Laughing Cavalier’ was created by Frans Hals in 1624. While there is nothing special about the portrait of a rich man, some distinctive features make this work the highlight of Hals’ career. Frans Hals was a painter from the southern Netherlands who worked with upper-class Dutch royals of the time. The rich people wanted to memorialize their existence through expensive paintings while the artist wanted to make a mark with his art. Here’s a detailed analysis of why the ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ became Hals’ best-known work. 

Where is it now?

The ‘Laughing Cavalier’ is an oil on canvas portrait, presently located at The Wallace Collect in London, England. This painting served as the centerpiece of a 2021 exhibition depicting Hals’ career titled “The Male Portrait Exhibition” at the Wallace Collection. 

The Story Behind Its Title

There is no one definite reason why the Laughing Cavalier has become the highlight of Hall’s career. The realism of the portrait is complimented by a lively color palette. The canvas depicts the life-size half portrait of a man with a rather coy expression on his face. Even though the sitter’s exact identity is lost, a Latin inscription at the top right corner indicates that he was 26 years old when he modeled for the painting. This extremely detailed piece was lost amidst several other portraits from the high renaissance until 1865. In the year 1865, the painting was bought by the 4th Marquees of Hertford for a large sum. 

In 1888 the portrait received its name from Victorian critics during an exhibition held at the Bethnal Green Museum. It is difficult to ascertain why this portrait is named so, even though the man is not laughing and is not a cavalier. Perhaps it is because of the emotions that are on display. The man’s smirk is highlighted by his rosy cheeks and it seems as if he’s holding in a laugh. While the term ‘cavalier’ could refer to his seemingly cavalier attitude. This new title is a major reason behind the painting’s fame. 

The Subject in the Laughing Cavalier

The laughing cavalier painting
The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals. Public Domain

This painting is a portrait of a 26-year-old man. His clothes, hair, and accessories reveal his upper-class status. The sword tucked under his left elbow indicates that he is a noble man. The sitter exudes such strong and realistic emotions that it urges us to respond to him. The man looks at us through his crystal clear blue eyes while his pink cheeks compliment his lips peeking from behind his mustache. His dark blonde hair forms gorgeous curls as they reflect the bright light coming from the top left corner.

The Sitter’s Doublet

As a result of the bright color palette, the man’s clothing appears to be a more important subject. While the background is a dull gray, the sitter’s clothes consist of a deep shade of black with intricate yellow, orange and red embroidery. His broad-rimmed black, upturned hat gives heightens his complacent appearance.

The Lace

Let’s cut to the chase and talk about his expensive French costume. This beautifully embroidered doublet sports designer sleeves made out of white lace which complement’s the man’s ruff. His ruff appears to be fluffy and soft with intricate details. Owing to Hans’ advanced painting technique it seems as though we could count each web of lace on the ruff. The same lace has been used on the sleeves. One of the most detailed parts of this costume is the symmetric geometrical shapes in the laces. The different shades of white provide it with an extremely realistic texture. 

The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals. Public Domain
Details in The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals. Public Domain

Embroidery

Golden threads adorn the buttons in the doublet and spread subtly all over the embroidery giving it a glimmering appearance. We see a very characteristic feature of French fashion in the sleeves. There are slashes in the fabric through which the white blouse underneath is visible. These slashes are supposed to run all the way to the back of the overcoat.

The lighting reveals the texture of the sitter’s sash. We see fine black silk intertwined with intricate black laces which provide a very subtle design to his otherwise plain cloak. If you observe the painting for long enough, you’ll be able to see the innumerable shades of black in his clothes. “

Frans Hals has no less than twenty-seven blacks.”

Vincent Van Gogh, 1886.

Another fine detail that almost mixes in the sitter’s embroidered clothes is a matching rapier under his left arm. This sword is a symbol of power available only to the elites of society. The rapier acts as an accessory that complements the gold threads in the design of his coat. 

The Laughing Cavalier: Further Analysis

As the man lives and breathes in the viewer’s space it allows us to make further analysis of the hidden meanings in the portrait. His head is slightly raised as he grins at us. It appears as if he has said something and is now seeking our reaction. Perhaps he was just smug, yet charismatic. His face is extremely emotive and has a realistic sheen.

The thread work on the coat has clear symbols consisting of tiny flames, arrows, and wings. These symbols are probably not a unique inclusion by the painter but only a replica of what he saw. Here, it is important to note that we will attempt to analyze the designer’s thought behind these symbols and not the painter’s. The flames evoke strength and power while the cupid’s arrow with wings signifies the passion of love. Together this design is a representation of the pleasures and pains of love. 

Conclusion

Fans Hals’ painting, “Laughing Cavalier” has clear tones of wealth, taste, and elitism conveyed to us through unmatched realism. Hals knew what he was good at and continued to refine it throughout his career. He was just a locally known gifted artist but today Frans Hals is one of the most famous Dutch painters of the Baroque period in the world.

FAQs: The Laughing Cavalier

Why is it called The Laughing Cavalier?

When Frans Hals painted this portrait in 1624, he did not present it with a title. About 200 years after its creation in 1888, victorian art critics arbitrarily designated the portrait with the title “Laughing Cavalier”.

Even though the man in this portrait is not laughing and is not cavalier, it is unclear why it was given that name. Perhaps it is a result of the obvious emotions. His flushed cheeks draw attention to the man’s smirk, and it appears that he is suppressing laughter. While the word “cavalier” could be used to describe his apparent arrogance. One of the main causes of the painting’s prominence is its new title.

Was The Laughing Cavalier a real person?

Even though there is no information about the Laughing Cavalier’s actual identity, there is convincing evidence that he was indeed a real person.

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