Historical Context and Major Features
The Dutch Protestants and the Flemish Catholics went their separate ways after the later sixteenth century. The situation is so completely different in Holland that it is difficult to imagine how, within such a tiny area, two such opposite artistic cultures could flourish.
Although closer in outlook to the Germans, the Dutch were ethnically the same as the Flemish, who were, in turn, closer in viewpoint to their neighbors to the south - the French. A Catholic, aristocratic, and traditional culture reigned in the Flanders of Rubens.
In Holland, severe Calvinistic Protestantism was puritanical toward religious art, sculptural or pictorial although many of the Dutch were Catholics, including a number of painters.
The churches were swept clean of images, and any recollection of the pagan myths, the material of Classicism, or even historical subjects, was prohibited in art.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, religious subjects and, later, Classical and historical subjects had been the major stimuli for artistic activity.
Liberated of these sources, what remained to enrich the lives of wealthy Hollanders? For they were wealthy!
During the early part of Spanish rule, the Dutch, like the Flemish, prospered The East India Company was formed, and the discovery of the New World opened up further opportunities for trade and colonization. The wars of independence from Spain made Holland the major maritime country of Europe; its closest rival was England, another Protestant power in the times of the Spanish decline.
The great Dutch commercial cities, such as Haarlem and Amsterdam, had been stimulated and enriched, and civic pride was strong. Although it was not internationally recognized until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Holland in fact had been independent from Spain since about 1580 and was extremely proud of its hard-won freedom.
The Dutch are 'the envy of some, the fear of others, and the wonder of all their neighbours'. So wrote the English ambassador to the Dutch Republic, Sir William Temple, in 1673.
In the 17th century, the Dutch republic became an economic and military superpower. It was also an era in which Dutch science and arts blossomed. This era is usually referred to as the Dutch Golden Age.
The Laughing Cavalier is the example we shall choose to end the International Laughter Day that today has commemorated. The portrait, by Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals, depicts the male sitter in a 3/4 stance, face turned as he looks out at the viewer. In the upper right of the painting, upon the rather mundane green background, an inscription can be found. It reads "aetatis suae 26, anno 1624” in Latin, translated to indicate that the painting was completed when the sitter was 26, in the year 1624, somewhat close to the beginning of the famous period in which the Dutch were acclaimed for their mastery of the arts, science and the military.
This work owes its name to the Victorian public and press that it first encountered upon making the journey from Paris to London in the early 1870s. The history of it only traces back as far as 1770, when it was sold in the Hague, presumably having been sold a number of times beforehand to Dutch buyers. Eventually it was acquired by Franco-Swiss banker and collector the Comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier in 1822, and his abundant collection was auctioned after his death in Paris in 1865. The man who obtained the work from auction was Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, who outbid Baron James de Rothschild at more than six times the sales estimate. This was an incredible show of the value of the work, which Hertford hung in his Paris home and called portrait d’un homme. From there, it was moved to England for a large, long-loan exhibition of old master paintings in Bethnal Green. The exhibition has an interesting history to itself, being one of the first of its kind not placed in the West End, with the purpose of attracting the working class to view the works and educated themselves. This work, named A Cavalier at the exhibition, was a hit at the exhibition and is responsible for much of the esteemed reputation that Hals held in England. The painting was cleaned in 1884, and some commented on his expression having changed, most notably a critic in the Athaeneum stating “The man smiles rather than laughs”. Despite this, the name was altered to Laughing Cavalier. The son of Hertford was Sir Richard Wallace, hence why the artwork can now be found in his former house, The Wallace Collection, that was donated to the nation by his widow after his death.
The work has faced much controversy in establishing who the sitter may be. Recorded titles that arose in the Netherlands, England and France in 19th Century suggest he was a military man, or at least an officer in a part time militia. This acknowledgement could simply be due to the prominence of portraits of both individual sitters, and large groups, as in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Art historian Pieter Biesboer suggests that the man might be a subject that Hals had utilised beforehand - Dutch cloth merchant Tieleman Roosterman. The detail that Hals has depicted in the costume appears intricate and colourful, imbuing the costume with life and extravagance. We see many significant emblems in the embroidery that John Ingamells sums up cohesively in his Dutch and Flemish Catalogue of the Wallace Collection: “bees, arrows, flaming cornucopiae, lover’s knots and tongues of fire” signify “the pleasures and pains of love”. Obelisks and pyramids can be seen, indicating strength, and Mercury’s cap and staff (caduceus) indicating fortune. All of these virtues are likely to be qualities that a wealthy man buying a portrait might like to display. Upon closer look, the viewer can see Hals is deceiving the eye with the detail, as the brushstrokes are large but swift, mirroring that of emotion — deep-felt but rather fleeting. His true to life depiction is enhanced with small editions that Hals has made such as the soft cream tint on his forehead, giving it a lively sheen and the circular pink brushstrokes on his cheeks give them a blushed tint.
Why has this particular work, that is clearly not laughing in the conventional way, become linked to the idea of laughter in such an overt manner? To begin with, we can attribute it to the mere fact that the sitter is depicted with a smile. Commissioned portraits like this one rarely show the subject with a smile. It was not until the late 18th century that this became common practice, therefore Hals was the exception to a rule. This indicates how conscious a decision of his it was, making the facial expression an important focal point for discussion. The informality of the poses of his characters gives an impression of movement and spontaneity to his work. Another element that is rather inviting about Laughing Cavalier is the liveliness already spoken of. The wrinkles beneath his eyes bulge with vitality, and the typical smiling eyes, or ‘smise’ fad of modern day can truly be experienced. A white twinkle in his right pupil distinguishes his jovial expression from a skeptical squint.
A twinkle in one’s eye, and a smile, albeit it small, is all that’s necessary to participate in World Laughter Day. So make completely certain, even if it’s just when falling asleep, to allow yourself that much, especially today.
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.