Frans Hals - The laughing cavalier

by Alexandra Tuschka


Reading the title of the painting "the laughing cavalier", one might at first imagine a somewhat more cheerful painting than this. The corners of the mouth are not very raised, the teeth show us the man at his "laughter" just as little - yes, one could even maliciously think that this man does not even look very friendly, but a little "from above" - and that literally! What cannot be denied is his direct and confident look at the observer and also his attractive appearance. With his full curls, vividly curved mustache and rosy cheeks, he looks healthy and appealing. His left arm perkily propped at his side, his expansive hat on his head, the snow-white collar at his neck, he confidently flaunts his status. The identity of the man is still the subject of wild speculation, but it has not yet been clearly established. The title of the painting further tells us that we are dealing with a "cavalier". Today, this word refers to a well-bred gentleman who, for example, holds the door open for the ladies and pulls back the chair; originally, however, the word was used for horsemen or knights. That this gentleman is at least armed is shown by a golden rapier pommel. An inscription in the upper right corner tells us the age of the sitter: 26 years. This misleading painting title is a result of Victorian presses that played out much for a bidding war at a Paris auction in 1865 between the 4th Maquess of Hertford and Baron James de Rothschild. Hertford acquired the painting for what was then a horrendous sum of 51,000 francs. This helped the artist as well as the artwork to great fame. In 1888, the painting was officially exhibited at the Royal Academy under its current title.

The painting is a classic half portrait, against the gray background the young man in his colorful costume stands out strongly. The slight lower view makes it possible for the sitter to look down on us a little. Somehow he also looks amused. Frans Hals shows in the here an overwhelming amount of detail, so that in the pattern of the jacket all sorts of symbolic motifs can be seen. Thus we see love motifs such as arrows, intertwined knots, flowers, a burning cornucopia... which is why it is often assumed that the portrait served an engagement. The mentioned motifs were identified in emblem books of the time, symbolizing the joys and sorrows of love. However, since no counterpart has appeared to date, it is also not unlikely that a merchant or trader commissioned his portrait - not unusual for the "golden age" of the Netherlands, in which the rich bourgeoisie expressed their status. This assumption is also supported by the snow-white, filigree collar, which was a status symbol and not easy to maintain. The mercury rod, another motif of the embroidery, alludes to craft activities as a possible profession of the sitter. In any case, it can be noted that here the painter placed particular emphasis on the elaboration of the costume, which is unparalleled in the rest of the ouevre of the Dutchman.

In recent times, the art historian Pieter Biesboer, among others, named the Haarlem merchant Tieleman Roosterman as the identity. Although at first glance both men look quite different, there are some clues that speak for this thesis: Tieleman was born in 1598, so he was 26 years old at the time of the work - as described. He also lived in Haarlem and belonged to the typical middle class for whom Frans Hals made portraits. Tielema was portrayed by Hals (again?) in 1634. Some want to recognize a small scar in the eyebrows of both men and also interpret the family coat of arms of the Roostermans, which contains arrows, as support of this thesis. However, quite simple observations like the reddish coloring of the hair on the one hand and the ash-brown on the other hand as well as the different eye colors may clearly against this thesis. May everyone make itself a picture.


Frans Hals - The Laughing Cavalier

Oil on canvas, 1624, 83 x 67.3 cm, Wallace Collection, London


Frans Hals - Tieleman Roosterman

Oil on canvas, 1634, 117 x 87 cm, Museum of Art, Cleveland