Mention The Laughing Cavalier to most people and they will almost certainly know the bright-eyed, coquettish smiling figure in an opulent outfit sporting an outsized black hat, an image which has appeared not only on beer labels and chocolate boxes but also in TV series from Sherlock Holmes to The Monkeys (yes, you hear me right). But it is doubtful that many know who painted this picture.

A major exhibition on Frans Hals (1582-1666) at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is putting this to rights. Drawing on works, many kept in Berlin and London’s National Gallery, a lavish book published by the excellent Hannibal Books in Belgium has been produced. It does not dwell on the usual crowd-pleasers such as the ubiquitous Cavalier or the paintings of large groups of Dutch militias who protected cities of the new Dutch Republic after the traumatic years under Spanish occupation. Frans Hals himself was a member of the militia in Haarlem. In the vast paintings rosy-cheeked militia men in black with lace trimmed boots pose, lances held high or dining copiously, swathes of raw silk sashes wound around their ample middle portions and tied into ostentatious bows. But I digress.

The book is a tribute to Hals’ astonishing ability to paint not only portraits but cloth, lace and textures with bold, rough strokes which, from a distance, appear to be fine detail but up close the brush strokes display not only the painter’s talent but an unerring authority that bears no contradiction. Occasionally, in his time, he was accused of being a ‘rough’ painter. His technique of course was not entirely new. It had been done in Italy and some suspected that that was his inspiration.

This fascinating book is a feast for the eyes. It shows the details of Hals’ painterly prowess in abundance and lets you feel the artist’s hand as he worked. In a museum you would never have the privilege of getting that close to these masterpieces. It is said that only Rembrandt could equal Frans Hals ‘tour de force’ with the brush. Included are many portraits of important Dutch figures but also of ordinary working people. One of his extraordinary talents was to depict people smiling or laughing, one of the hardest to achieve for a painter. There can be little doubt that his ability for fast, bold brush work was the forerunner to Impressionism. Van Gogh said of Hals, ‘He has twenty-seven blacks to choose from.’

The book about Frans Hals’ work and life is written by Bart Cornelis, Friso Lammertse, Justine Rynnooy Kan and Jaap van der Veen, four experts of the art of the Dutch Golden Age working with or for the Rijksmuseum, the National Gallery London, Mauritishuis in The Hague, among others.

The book was initially produced by the National Gallery London where the exhibition has just finished. The show opens at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam on 16th February and runs until 9th June before moving on to Berlin.   Astrid Burchardt   21st October 2024

The hardback, in Dutch, is available from bookshops and online

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Hannibal Books. First edition (4th November 2023)

Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 219 pages

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9464666625

ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9464666625

Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 24.4 x 2.3 x 29.8 cm

The English language paperback edition is available from Amazon

Publisher ‏ : ‎ National Gallery London (23rd October 2023)

Paperback ‏ : ‎ 244 pages

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1857097122

ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1857097122

Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 25.15 x 1.78 x 28.45 cm