Review: Frans Hals Exhibition, National Gallery
It being that time of year again, you’ll naturally be thinking about a jovial fat man bringing you a great deal of cheer. I’m talking of course about the Laughing Cavalier, one of the delights to be found at the National Gallery’s Christmas blockbuster Frans Hals exhibition.
This is the first time that the Laughing Cavalier, painted in 1624, has been loaned out. To be fair, its permanent home is the Wallace Collection, just up the road, so it has only travelled a few miles. Nevertheless, this short journey is a very big deal, which has only been made possible by the Wallace Collection changing its loans policy. For the previous 120 years the terms of the bequest had prevented any loans from its collection. So this is a significant moment, and the first opportunity to see this famous painting alongside many other works by the same artist – some fifty in total.
The Laughing Cavalier is not, of course, actually laughing. He is smiling enigmatically, but he does have glowing red cheeks and a beard, and the quick brush style used by Hals gives him great vivacity. The painting came to Britain in the 1870s, thanks to the Marquess of Hertford, who had bought it in 1865 and hung it first in his Paris home. The Victorians gave it its famous moniker, and it was a sensation which helped revive interest in Hals, who had faded into obscurity, despite being a worthy contemporary of Rembrandt and Vélazquez.
This is the first major retrospective of Hals’ work in Britain since the Royal Academy exhibition in 1990, more than 30 years ago. Before that, the previous retrospective was in 1962. So Hals gets a run out every three decades, and this may be your last chance to see him in all his glory in your lifetime.
As well as key loans from Dutch collections, other highlights in the exhibition include portraits of Isaac Massa, Pieter Dircksz and Tieleman Roosterman, as well as The Rommel-Pot Player, all loaned from the US and Canada. The exhibition is a chronological display of portraits, with separate sections for genre paintings and small portraits, allowing space for Hals’ amazing group portraits from the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, which have rarely left the city since they were painted some four centuries ago.
Hals sits as one of the central figures of the Golden Age of Dutch Art which included not just Rembrandt but also Vermeer, born just after The Laughing Cavalier was painted. The sensational Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (who are partnering with the National Gallery on the Hals show) this year means that 17th-century Dutch painters are having a moment. Hals can perhaps claim to be more influential. His Impressionistic style influenced painters such as Van Gogh and Monet, and unlike his contemporaries, most of his paintings depict people in natural poses, laughing and smiling. He is delightfully informal. This is one not to be missed.
Frans Hals at the National Gallery runs until 21 January 2024. nationalgallery.org.uk