Since art auctions were invented, they have served to hype artists’ prices. It can happen during an artist’s lifetime — Jeff Koons’s ‘Balloon Dog’ — or half a millennium after their death — Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’. And it can sometimes restore a lost reputation, as happened with Frans Hals.
When the picture now famous as ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ came up for auction in Paris in 1865, Hals was all but forgotten. A successful portraitist in his lifetime, he never made much money — with a wife and at least ten children, he remained a renter throughout his career — and after his death his reputation, overshadowed by Rembrandt’s, was tarnished by claims that he was a piss artist. In the 19th century the modernity of his style began to pique the interest of connoisseurs, but it was the bidding battle for the mystery ‘Cavalier’ (the ‘Laughing’ was added later) between Baron James de Rothschild and the 4th Marquess of Hertford that sent his prices soaring. When Hertford splashed 51,000 francs — more than six times its estimate — on the painting, Hals’s reputation was remade. Sir Charles Eastlake described the bidding as ‘spirited, then absurd’; the National Gallery failed to secure the picture, and it became the pride of the Wallace Collection.
Now the Wallace has given Hals’s most famous painting an escort of 12 other portraits from international collections, inviting us to place it in context. Starting with an early formal portrait of a sombre man with a skull and ending with a bravura painting of a raffish individual in a rakish hat, the baker’s dozen of Dutch burghers in Frans Hals: The Male Portrait are unapologetically white, middle class and male. Given the dreariness of Hals’s female portraits, this is a relief. While his male patrons tend to be animated and jovial, their better halves look stiff and down-in-the-mouth; with all those children to drag up, the matrons of Haarlem may have had little to be jovial about.
Sargent defined a portrait as ‘a painting with something wrong with the mouth’ — the fault of the sitter’s nerves as much as the artist’s. Hals clearly knew how to put his male patrons at their ease — drink? — and they look almost as relaxed as the roisterers in his genre scenes. He makes effective use of the jauntily angled hat (too jaunty for one 18th-century owner of the raffish man, who had it painted out), the arm akimbo and the stage furniture. Two of his sitters lean casually over the backs of their chairs; at any moment, they might straddle them cowboy-style.
Hals operated on the Robert Capa principle that if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. His subjects’ faces press against the picture plane, typically looking down on us from above: either they posed on a dais or he sat at their feet. The fact that most of them are dressed in black and white focuses attention on their faces, but injecting life into all that monochrome took genius. ‘Frans Hals must have had twenty-seven blacks,’ gasped Van Gogh; he needed at least as many whites for all those lacy collars and cuffs. Severe black clothing was a legacy of Spanish rule and it was not until the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce that the younger generation discovered the delights of French fashion. Like 1960s escapees from the City suit, they celebrated by growing their hair, sparking a ‘Dispute of the Locks’ with the guardians of Protestant morality.
That didn’t bother the two young fops depicted by Hals in 1645 blatantly glorying in their locks and their French fripperies. Jasper Schade sports a devoré doublet with modish slashes in its sleeves, rendered by Hals in slashes of paint. Like ripped designer jeans, this exercise in sprezzatura won’t have come cheap: the year the portrait was painted Schade blew 300 francs — nine months’ wages for a skilled craftsman — on a single item of clothing in Paris. The 11 children he later fathered may have clipped his wings; the equally dressy Willem Coymans remained a bachelor.
Neither of these young blades can match ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ (1624) for male grooming, with his ’tache, goatee and eyebrows shaped to a perfection suggesting daily visits to the barber-surgeon. ‘Because I’m worth it,’ his expression says. Who is he and what has he got to be so pleased about? The suggestion that he’s the younger self of the dark-haired textile merchant Tieleman Roosterman in a later portrait won’t wash, unless Haarlem’s barber-surgeons had access to L’Oréal hair dyes. Plus he looks too much of a Jack the Lad for a wealthy merchant. The extraordinary attention paid by Hals to the embroidery on his doublet — so complex in its symbolism it requires a key in the catalogue — raises the suspicion that the doublet is the real subject of the portrait and the handsome young man is only modelling it. He’s not strictly laughing, just having a laugh.