Wallace Collection’s unashamed celebration of Frans Hals is a recognition that much of our history was painted by men
The Laughing Cavalier has twice appeared in advertising campaigns. Once for Cavalier cigars. Once for gouda cheese. In both cases, his pose was doctored to show his right arm holding the product aloft. The expression stayed the same. Here was a man smilingly delighted with his purchase.
The cigar-chomping, cheese-munching, ever merry cavalier is the star of the Wallace Collection’s autumn show Frans Hals: The Male Portrait which opens in central London on September 22. I’ve been reading the catalogue in readiness.
In his director’s foreword, Dr Xavier Bray forestalls any anticipated criticism: “The all-male nature of this exhibition might seem misplaced in today’s world, particularly at a time when museums are working hard to diversify their audiences by supporting more inclusive programming. An exhibition about a white, male 17th-century painter who focuses his gaze exclusively on white, male sitters, who are predominantly very wealthy, is not necessarily an obvious fit with these aims. However, museums should not shy away from tackling themes head on; after all, if one cannot explore ideas in a civic space, where can one?”
Where indeed? Brave man, Dr Bray. In fact, the whole exhibition, a gentlemen’s club gathering of the Wallace’s own Laughing Cavalier with 12 other male portraits by the Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals, feels defiant and contrary. Stock in historic masculinity has never been so low. The curator Dr Lelia Packer, I might add, is a woman.
Frans Hals, we learn, was apprenticed to the painter Karel van Mander some time before 1603 and joined Haarlem’s all-male painters’ Guild of St Luke in 1610. He travelled to Antwerp in 1615 where he saw works by Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens and, possibly, the then teenage Anthony van Dyck. Five of Hals’s sons became painters after training in their father’s studio. He is also thought to have taught the genre painters Adriaen Brouwer, Adriaen van Ostade, Philips Wouwerman and — gouda be praised! — Judith Leyster. At last, a lady. Leyster was the first woman painter to be admitted to the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem, in 1633.
Further fun facts to know and tell: it was conventional, when painting pendant portraits of husband and wife, to place the man on the dominant dexter (right-hand) side and the woman on the man’s sinister (left-hand) or lesser side. This tradition goes back to medieval altarpieces, which typically placed male donors on the right and female donors on the left. When Hals painted an unidentified husband and wife, now in the Rijksmuseum, he painted the wife slightly smaller than her husband and set further back. Her husband manspreads right the way across the canvas.
I am pleased to discover the existence of something called “the Renaissance elbow” — a pose adopted by male sitters in portraits by Hals, Titian, Bronzino and Holbein, with the hand placed on the hip and the elbow turned assertively, even aggressively, outwards. Best set off by a slashed and brocaded super-sleeve. (I’m going to adopt this “swagger” pose for my next byline photo.) Hals’s women, by contrast, fold their hands politely or tuck them out of sight.
Hals often painted his male sitters in a looser, bravura manner, while his women tend to be more fastidiously and conventionally painted. None of this is fair or just, but it is interesting.
On Monday, Professor Robert Tombs wrote in these pages that you cannot rewrite history. No, but some people are having a jolly good try. Rhodes must fall, Colston must crash, Winston must, I dunno, wobble. I’m not saying these men were blameless, only that — toppled or not toppled — they have their place in history.
You can resurrect the reputations of a Judith Leyster or a Catharina van Hemessen, overshadowed in her lifetime by both her father, also a painter, and her husband, an organist at Antwerp cathedral. You can celebrate the achievements against the odds of Artemisia Gentileschi, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Barbara Hepworth, Nina Hamnett, Paula Rego and Frida Kahlo — all subjects of recent retrospectives. But there’s no getting away from the fact that for much of history the rules were made by men for men and that those men were mostly painted, yes, you guessed it, by men.
The Dutch love a pun and Leyster was praised by a (male) contemporary as a Ley/sterr or lodestar — a leading star in the artistic firmament. A lodestar and a lone star. Perhaps she blazes a little brighter for being a rare shooting star, but the constellations were made up of men.
It would be regrettable, to put it mildly as befits a lady, if, in our efforts to decolonise, detoxify and otherwise unmuscle the curriculum, we shut out the light of the stars: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, the problematic Melville and Hemingway and Waugh and Maugham and Larkin and . . .
Hals’s 13 men in black are anything but pale, stale males. Hail fellow, well met is more like it. One contemporary thought Hals’s portraits “lack nothing but life itself”.
The Laughing Cavalier is his masterpiece. (Now that word really has to go.) We still don’t know who the sitter was. He was simply an unknown man until he became a cavalier in 1865 and the Laughing Cavalier in 1888. He isn’t, as the catalogue points out, even laughing. His expression is more one of irony, smirk or merriment at other men’s follies. A model, then, of amused, indulgent tolerance for our outraged, humourless age.
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