At the age of fifteen, I somewhat pretentiously used to declare that I had a crush on Johannes Vermeer. This was a purely intellectual crush: one of the few potential self-portraits of the artist does not show him in the best light. But, in my defence, the Dutch Golden Age painter seemed a distinctly better option than the slightly spotty, rather shy boys from the school nearby. And, just under a decade later, my opinion hasn’t changed all that much: I’d choose the painter, genius, and master-of-light over the barely grown-up twentysomethings that pass for datable men these days.
But, at the Wallace Collection this weekend, my ardour for Vermeer was shaken: not by the presence of a contemporary man (…as if), but by another Dutch Golden Age painter. Frans Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier (1624) has been in the Wallace Collection since 1865, but the current exhibition, The Male Portrait, is the first time this iconic painting has been displayed alongside other works by the artist.
Hals is not a painter of quiet, near-serene scenes like Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (c.1657) — rather, most of the paintings he is famed for are rambunctious, amusing, and seem to invite the viewer in on the joke. Take the Jester with a Lute (c.1620) or The Smoker (c.1623) as an example: if Vermeer is the painter of light and poetry, Hals is the painter of smiles and stand-up-comedy.
But the exhibition at the Wallace Collection shows another side to the master. The curators have selected thirteen portraits of men from across Hals’ career — from 1610 to 1666.
The earliest portrait — Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull (1610-1614) — is a sombre, dark painting with all the gravitas and none of the humour of Hamlet waxing about Yorick. And the exhibition does not lighten up: it is truly difficult to find a man who is not wearing all black. Van Gogh is famously quoted as having said that Hals “must have had twenty-seven blacks”. In this exhibition, twenty-seven seems too few.
As a cross-section of Hals’ career is housed in one room, it is fascinating to trace his development in painting faces, fabrics, and folds. Interesting similarities appear: all of Hals’ men have the most brilliantly painted wrists and hands; their fingers are bent into such shapes as they seem to be reaching out of the varnished surface of the canvas.
Hals evidently enjoyed painting clothes: in a portrait from 1635, the man’s face, hair, and hands are all but out of focus as he leans back over his chair and makes eye contact with the viewer. The only part of the painting that is in focus is his incredibly ornate lace collar. So many of Hals’ paintings have been posthumously named “Portrait of a Man”; in this case, it is tempting to make it the far more Jamesian “Portrait of a Lacy”.
Many of Hals’ paintings are named “Portrait of a Man”; in this case, it is tempting to make it the far more Jamesian “Portrait of a Lacy”
The Laughing Cavalier is the proclaimed highlight of the exhibition: it is on all of the promotional material, and is the only postcard available to buy in the gallery shop. And it is undeniably brilliant: the embroidery work on the cavalier’s arms is brilliantly, mesmerisingly detailed; the lace collar has an almost tangible sense of frothiness; and the man’s smile manages to capture both kindness and playful ribaldry. It is placed at one end of the gallery so as to dominate all of the darker pictures along the walls. But it is also undeniably different to many of the other paintings: it does not have a coat of arms in the background or on the frame, and nor is the man accompanied by his name and age. The painting is not a portrait of a rich patron or Dutch merchant; it succeeds purely because Hals was able to convey such character.
But it is not the best painting in the exhibition. It is technically accomplished, convincing, and amusing — but nothing could rival Portrait of a Man (1660-6). This is the latest painting in the exhibition, and sits on a wall at the far end of the gallery directly opposite The Laughing Cavalier. Whilst the Cavalier is the product of ornate brushwork and delicate palette-mixing to produce creamy skin, Portrait of a Man is the product of a drunken creative frenzy. Harsh black lines score the man’s clothes onto the canvas: you can see where Hals made one mark for a shadow, and decided it wasn’t forthright enough. Whilst the other men of the exhibition have their outfits of velvet and jacquard faithfully rendered, this man’s cloak is all but the same as the background bar the harsh, sparse brush-strokes. His hat seems to hover somewhere above and beyond his head, rather than being perched on it, and his hand and wrist merge into one skin-coloured blob rather than the anatomical brilliance of the other portraits.
For all of this, it is the best painting in the gallery. It draws a link from the Dutch Golden Age to the later vigour of the Édouard Manet or even Augustus John. But it is not simply a precursor to these looser, more expressive works. It truly is loose, expressive, anachronistically modernist. It is utterly captivating: the only portrait in the exhibition that you could stare at forever. And the longer you look at it, the more it seems to question, dissemble, and fade away. Why did Hals resist the man’s cloak from completely blending into his background? Why did Hals illuminate the smoky hat so as to make it almost a halo? How did he get the shadow of the nose so spectacularly, unbelievably right? It is the type of painting people could write poems about.
If I had one bone to pick with the exhibition, it would be its male focus. But before you preemptively cancel me, this is not a woke war-cry. The exhibition bumf proclaims the curators explore “the notion of manhood in 17th-century Holland”. There’s no problem with that, but aside from one rather hilarious curator’s note that argues that a man’s hat is a symbol of “male supremacy”, not much is revealed about the “notion of manhood”. Far more is revealed about Hals and the notions of portraiture and painting. When this is the case, why have the many portraits of these men’s wives been excluded?
The exhibition is not an exploration of male supremacy, manhood, or patriarchal dominance: the best paintings are those that eschew the signs of male ancestral power. Rather, Hals’ portraits are — to quote a cliché — mirrors for his talent and artistry. The many unnamed “Portrait[s] of a Man” amount to one, comprehensive “Portrait of the Artist” — but would it have really hurt that much to include a woman?
Frans Hals: The Male Portrait is at The Wallace Collection until 30 January 2022
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