‘Men in Black’ could be the title of this terrific little exhibition, except really, it’s Men in Black and White. Its centrepiece is the Wallace Collection’s best known work, The Laughing Cavalier, and here he is surrounded by a dozen men who might have been his acquaintances or his friends, a veritable party of a show.
The title is Frans Hals: The Male Portrait, and what it sets out to do, and does, is to put the Cavalier into the context of Hals’ other portraits of men. Like is compared with like over the course of the painter’s career. And like really is like – these are all men in black with white ruffs or collars; it could be an exercise in identity dressing, so as to highlight the respects in which men really differ from each other: in character, aspect and expression. You can see in this show why Van Gogh, an admirer, marvelled at the number of shades of black Hals could produce.
And we needn’t fear. Even in this company, The Laughing Cavalier is still the handsomest man in the room. Actually, make that the handsomest man in art, as he’s sometimes described. There’s a swagger about the young fellow, a come-hither look in the eyes that follow you everywhere, a gay uplift in the moustache, which makes him completely irresistible. Closer inspection shows that he is not so much in black as in the most fabulous black-backed brocade, richly embroidered, with an elegant sword barely visible. And we don’t know for sure who he is, though we see nearby a portrait of a man ten years older, painted ten years later, who may possibly be the same sitter. I’m not wholly convinced, myself. The other man has a heaviness about him – very Velasquez – which is absent from the Cavalier.
The exhibition has entailed a close examination of the painting, and what is evident is that what we see is pretty well what we were always intended to see. No changes in posture during execution, for instance. And this, combined with the fact that there are no extant preparatory sketches for any Hals picture, suggests that he worked directly onto the canvas from life. Contemporaries marvelled at his capacity to capture people to the life.
Even given that the Cavalier stands supreme, there are some terrifically vivacious figures here. Perhaps the most vivid of all is a sea captain from the East India Company, indeed an admiral, Pieter van der Broecke, shown with hair unkempt, one arm akimbo, the other hand resting on a baton, cheerful, weatherbeaten and friendly. We’re told he participated in the slave trade but in the case of two enslaved women by whom he had a child each, he freed them, and at least one child took his name. Van der Broecke also brought the coffee plant to Amsterdam, to be later grown in Indonesia.
Then there’s the rakish Willem Coymans, one of the dashing bachelors that Hals depicted quite differently from the staid married men. Coymans is seated turned to the viewer with his arm over the chair, a pose that, it seems, originated with Hals. His other favourite was the standing figure, hand on his hip, the posture of another bachelor, Jasper Schaede, quite insolently aristocratic. Both of them have lovely flat collars rather than stiff ruffs, all the better to show off their flowing hair – a controversial style choice in the Calvinist Netherlands.
This is a splendid little show which shows the evolution of an extraordinary artist over his entire career. And when it’s over, we’ll still be left with our dashing Cavalier.
Wallace Collection, September 22 to January 30, wallacecollection.org