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Frans Hals: A Dutch master comes to London

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Art Correspondent

Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, 1624, Oil on canvas, 83 x 67 cm, © Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London

It’s a pretty safe bet that in this country most people, if asked to name a painting by Frans Hals will come up with The Laughing Cavalier. An even safer bet might be to ask them to describe the painting and they’ll reply, well, it’s a man, a cavalier, showily dressed – and he’s laughing!

Well actually, he’s not: The Laughing Cavalier is neither laughing, nor a cavalier; it’s not even known who he is, but it’s safe to say that he looks mightily pleased with himself – and that the painting is one of the most iconic pictures in the world. Dated from 1624, the painting, on loan from the Wallace Collection where it has been displayed since the 1870s but never before loaned, is one of the finest examples of the work of the Dutch portrait artist was recognised in his lifetime for his technical brilliance and for his exceptionally lively characterisations.

For the next four months, anyone within striking distance of the National Gallery in London has the golden opportunity to see some fifty or more of those lively characterisations from the Dutch Golden Age. From the rosy-cheeked, jauntily moustachioed ‘Cavalier’ to groups of militia men, family portraits and married couples (including long-separated pendant portraits of couples reunited for the show), and genre portraits of everyday folk like The Lute Player, or the young woman who glances at us from the fruit and veg stall, they are like snapshots of 17th-century life in the city of Haarlem, where Hals worked for most of his life.

Whether flamboyantly, soberly, or more poorly dressed, his subjects are often ruddy cheeked, boisterous and smiling, or at least looking like they got the joke - Hals was one of the very few artists in the history of Western art who could successfully paint people smiling and laughing; most artists didn’t dare, too readily could a smile become a grimace, especially if teeth were on view.

In a largely chronological display of portraits, the exhibition explores how Hals’s fresh, energetic approach allowed him to transform portraiture from a merely functional genre into an expressive, imaginative art form.

“Hals’s early career is a bit of a mystery,” says Bart Cornelis, Curator of Dutch and Flemish Paintings 1600-1800 at the National Gallery. “He seems to have arrived on the scene fully fledged. Even in the earlier paintings, when looking at Hals’s work it’s almost a visceral experience: you look and you think you know them. It’s all to do with his amazing technique.”

Portrait of Jasper Schade, 1645, Oil on canvas, 80 × 67.5 cm. National Gallery Prague, Photo © National Gallery Prague 2023

From gallery to gallery, you see his confidence in his abilities as a painter grow. His brushstrokes become freer and freer - never more so than in the Portrait of Jasper Schade, 1645, a man who had a reputation for spending excessive amounts on his clothes. Hals’s extremely rapid brushstrokes highlighting the dance of light on the man’s black and white taffeta sleeve are a spectacular tour de force.

In such fashion, painting quickly, often straight on to the canvas without the use of preliminary drawings, he earned a reputation as a virtuoso whose handling of the brush was equalled only by the likes of Rembrandt in the Netherlands and Velázquez in Spain.

Nevertheless, his work almost faded into oblivion for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. His bravura as a painter had to wait to be rediscovered in the second half of the 19th century by the art critic and journalist Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who rediscovered Vermeer, and by the Impressionists, who greatly admired Hals’s brushwork.

Van Gogh also was impressed. A quotation from his letter written in 1888 to Emil Bernard, says: “Frans Hals painted portraits: nothing, nothing, nothing but that. But it is worth as much as Dante’s Paradise and the Michelangelos and Raphaels and even the Greeks.”

This is the largest show of Hals’s work since 1989, and is organised with the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. After its run in London ends in January 2024, it will tour first to Amsterdam and then Berlin.

Portrait of a Couple, probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, about 1622, Oil on canvas, 140 × 166.5 cm, © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Exhibition curator Cornelis sums up the pleasure of reintroducing Hals to a new audience, saying, “It is very exciting to be able to present the first major monographic show devoted to Frans Hals for more than thirty years. No museum has, during that time, attempted to present a survey of his work. This means that no one under the age of 40 has been able to acquaint themselves, through a comprehensive overview, with the genius of one of the greatest portrait painters of all time.’

As for me, I enjoyed this retrospective more than I expected. Who couldn’t really? With its over fifty-strong cast of swaggering, smirking or self-satisfied characters - the exhibition is, luckily, not over large, for seeing face after face after face, however happy, can pall - it’s fun, it positively drips with fashionable ruffs and exquisitely painted lace, and there’s a clownish touch to many of them… so, maybe I should take a bet that few visitors will be leaving this show without a slight smile on their faces?


The Credit Suisse Exhibition Frans Hals

The National Gallery, London

Showing until: 21 January 2024

The exhibition then travels to:

The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam: 16 February 2024 - 09 June 2024

Gemaldegalerie, Berlin: 12 July 2024 - 3 November 2024

National Gallery exhibitions on at the same time:

Discover Liotard and the Lavergne Family Breakfast (16 November 2023 - 3 March 2024), Admission free

Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed (7 December 2023 - 10 March 2024), Admission free

The National Gallery's 2023 Artist in Residence: Celine Condorelli (13 September 2023 - 7 January 2024), Admission free


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