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Dutch Masters Season Part 2: Frans Hals

When I told my mother that I was going to paint a series of Norms based on classical paintings, the first suggestion she made was The Laughing Cavalier by Dutch golden age artist, Frans Hals. I thought she was mad! Having seen the portrait on a trip to The Wallace Collection in London some years ago, my lasting memory is being overawed by the intricacy of the portrait, in particular the extravagant embroidery on the “Cavalier’s” sumptuous outfit, and the skill with which Frans Hals had captured the abundance of lace around his neck and cuff. No way could I paint this in small Norm reproduction I thought. But then, when I painted a Norm based on Velazquez with all its lavish silk clothing, followed by a Doisneau inspired Norm painting with the intricacy of that darned complex Opera Garnier, I realised that the Cavalier may not be such a feat after all.

And so, excited by the challenge I had set myself, and all the more enthusiastic in the knowledge that a Laughing Cavalier Norm would make a suitably ravishing addition to my Dutch Masters collection, I attempted to recreate Frans Hals masterpiece on a mere 8″x10″ canvas. And here is the result.

Laughing Cavalier Norm (after Frans Hals) (acrylic on canvas, 2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

The title of the original work was undoubtedly not The Laughing Cavalier, but the portrait became known as such around the time it first arrived in Britain in the 19th Century. It was thought to be unusual for a portrait of its age (1624) to feature a smiling figure – usually formal portraits were more serious and austere. But this gentleman, while not actually laughing, is certainly jolly, if a little haughty, and his curled up moustache pronounces the smiling contours of his expression. Lucky then that the moustache aids in the creation of a smiley disposition, because with no mouth, my Norm would certainly be all the more somber without it.

Frans Halls, The Laughing Cavalier (1624, The Wallace Collection, London)

English: Frans Hals, "The Laughing Cavali...

Image via Wikipedia

It is also doubtful, incidentally, whether the Laughing Cavalier, asides from lacking in laughter, was even a cavalier. It is said he was most likely a wealthy civilian, perhaps also a military man as suggested by a glimpse of the hilt of his sword. His richly embroidered clothing is aptly demonstrative of his wealth. There are many emblems in the embroidery, allegedly signifying “the pleasures and pains of love” through bees, arrows, flaming cornucopiae, lover’s knots and tongues of fire, while an obelisk-like shape is meant to signify strength and Mercury’s cap and caduceus signifiers of fortune. Meanwhile the turning pose and low viewpoint are shared by a number of similar portraits by Frans Hals.

Whoever this jocular gentleman was doesn’t really matter. There is certainly a power in his expression, through the sparkle of his eyes and confidence of his smile which continues to captivate today. It was often said, when the portrait first rose to fame in Britain, that the Laughing Cavalier’s eyes followed you around the room. They certainly seem to do so – even a digital reproduction on my computer screen seems to come alive, almost bemused at it watches me fussing around the room and clicking away on my computer. No wonder then that this painting has taken its worthy place in the gallery of Dutch masterpieces. It’s a work which breaks the boundaries of formal portraiture, packed with personality, symbolism, and a smiling face which exudes personality to this day.  Tot morgen…Vaarwel.

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