A young man with a mustache in a dazzling costume is smiling at us. The man who has a self-assured, humorous look on his face is sitting in a confident posture with his chin up and his hat placed on the top of his head. With all this, he might come across arrogant but has undeniable charm. Who is this man?
This is a portrait entitled “The Laughing Cavalier,” which was drawn by Dutch painter Frans Hals. The renowned 17th-century painter, who worked in Haarlem City for all his life, earned his reputation early on for lively portraits. Does this suggest that the sitter was a cavalier of Haarlem? He was not. The title was coined later in the late 19th century due to the costume and posture in the portrait. It was originally called “a portrait of an unknown man,” and the identity of the man is unknown although some argue that he was an affluent merchant. Also, unlike what the title suggests, the man has a smile on his face like Mona Lisa rather than a laugh. One piece of information we do know about the man is that he was 26 years old when the portrait was painted, as inscribed at top right along with the year. Even if he was not an aristocrat or a cavalier, he must have been wealthy going by his flamboyant costume and confidence.
The highlight of the painting is the embroidered sleeve. It is filled with motifs that symbolize the pleasures and pains of love such as flaming, arrows, hearts and lovers’ knots. It indicates that the portrait was a gift for a lover or to win someone’s heart. Exuding wealth, youth, passion and confidence, the portrait must have pleased the sitter. However, by inscribing only his age without the name, it appears that the painter in his 40s who had experienced the ebb and flow of life, wanted to offer the young man a piece of advice: Wealth and reputation are of little value, and passionate love and youth do not last forever.