No wonder the Laughing Cavalier has such a smug expression on his face. We don’t know who he is, but all the clues in this famous portrait suggest he was an extremely wealthy, fashionable young bachelor and – almost certainly – a resident of Haarlem. And when his picture was painted by Frans Hals, in 1624, this was the richest city in one of the richest countries in the world.
Our cavalier was – at least during his younger years – a beneficiary of the trading power of Holland’s huge commercial fleet, which was protected by a powerful navy. It dominated world trade as the country’s banking, cloth-making and agricultural industries were in the ascendancy. But, by the 1630s, there was so much money sloshing about in Haarlem that it fuelled the first-ever large-scale speculative bubble. And its economy imploded in spectacular fashion.
It all focused on the Dutch national flower, the tulip. So intense was the mania which developed in the market for rare and exotic colours that, in 1635, a single tulip bulb – Semper Augustus, prized for the spectacular red “flames” on its white petals – was sold in Haarlem for 6,000 guilders. That was about 40 times the annual earnings of a craftsman.
It was the peak of the madness and a record never to be broken. Within a few months, bulbs which had been worth thousands were fetching only hundreds. Many fell in value by 95 per cent. The bulb bubble had burst. If you had speculated on tulips, you were ruined. Overnight, fortunes were lost and the Haarlem economy stalled. No doubt the cavalier’s smile faltered.
The get-rich-quick phenomenon of tulip mania, was the world’s first taste of that disastrous market psychology whereby greed consumes common sense before panic undermines the whole tottering edifice. The story was to be repeated with the bursting of the South Sea Bubble a century later in London, the Wall Street Crash in 1929, and, in more recent memory, the dot-com crash of 2000.
If the failure of the tulip market wasn’t bad enough for Haarlem’s merchants, later that year a virulent attack of bubonic plague decimated the population. The city never quite recovered. Economically it was soon outpaced by Amsterdam; Haarlem’s shallow canals put it at a trading disadvantage, and it became a backwater.
But Haarlem’s moment of glory was frozen in time. And that is its great appeal today. Most of what the modern tourist sees in the old centre – the stone quays along the canals, the classic steps and curves that form the architectural rhythms of the gabled houses, the quiet cobbled alleyways – dates from the first half of the 17th century. They were built by wealthy citizens to celebrate and demonstrate their new-found prosperity.
But there is another dimension to historic Haarlem. It is more than just a charming, but empty historical stage set. You can still stand face-to-face with the people who built the place; the functionaries who presided over the city council, the middle-class families, the charity workers and tradesmen and of course, the young rich set epitomised by the Laughing Cavalier.
For one of the most important ways they liked to spend their new-found wealth was to commission portraits. And their favourite local painter was Frans Hals, whose work is now on show in a major retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery.
Hals’ great skill was not just his ability to render a convincing likeness. With rapid, deft brushstrokes, he was also able to infuse his subjects with life and humour, to convey the sense of a fleeting moment, rather than a ponderous pose. The Laughing Cavalier, which is a highlight of the exhibition, became famous for precisely this reason, even though if you look critically at the canvas he isn’t actually laughing – that title was given to the painting in the 19th century.
Yet somehow you come away from the painting with the feeling that he is. Or at least that he is about to break into a big grin. This is typical of the other Hals portraits you can still see in Haarlem’s museums, especially in the artist’s great sequence of group portraits of the civic guard companies.
By the 1620s these units, which had originally been founded to provide a serious militia to defend the city, were no longer likely to be needed for that purpose. They had become more like gentlemen’s drinking clubs, and Hals’ large-scale paintings – like that of the St George’s company, which is on display at the National Gallery – show them feasting (or sometimes parading) energetically, with their gaudy flags and with silk sashes in bright company colours wrapped around their ample stomachs.
Hals received a fee from each member included in the group, and no doubt there were lots of negotiations about prominence and pose. Nevertheless, these group pictures are suffused with jollity and bonhomie and the extraordinary, apparently spontaneous naturalism in which Hals excelled. Even when he portrayed the rather more sober officials who oversaw Haarlem’s almshouses and hospitals, he still makes us feel as though we have just walked into a room full of real people at an important moment. One is about to speak, another has just looked up, a third is listening intently.
Perhaps what freed him to paint in the way he did, and to contribute to a significant shift in the way that portrait painting in Europe was perceived, was the nature of his patrons. He did not need commissions from the church or the head of state, or from grand aristocrats – the traditional market for portraits. He was painting his social equals: middle-class people with whom he empathised, and whose world was thoroughly familiar to him.
So if you visit Haarlem today, you can step straight from the 17th-century streets into the Frans Hals Museum – a former almshouse of 1609 which is full of his portraits – and its citizens come back to life. It isn’t just Hals’ middle-class patrons who are on show. Paintings by his contemporaries include scenes depicting working-class trades and households – a woman preparing food in the kitchen, a weaver’s shop, a smithy – as well as family merriment and musical evenings.
Despite the drinking culture, this was a Calvinist society, and the merrymaking is often tempered with a moral message about the dangers of sensual pleasures. In one painting – by Dirck, the younger brother of Hals – a seduction scene depicting a group of suitors and young ladies also shows a pair of dogs sniffing each other.
Nowhere is the moralising more explicit than in the small collection of paintings produced in the wake of tulip mania. One allegory, ‘Flora’s Wagon of Fools’, by Hendrick Pot, dates from about 1637. It depicts a chariot driven by Folly, who holds bunches of tulips, and with her ride three bulb dealers wearing fools’ caps. They follow the ‘Pigeon of Vain Hope’, accompanied by a band of Haarlem weavers who have given up their jobs to join the speculation bandwagon. All seem unaware that they are being blown into the sea.
The National Gallery Exhibition
Frans Hals – the first major Hals retrospective for 30 years – is at the National Gallery from September 30 – January 21, 2024; admission £20. The Laughing Cavalier from the Wallace Collection is one of many paintings on loan for the duration.