Why did Van Gogh, Manet and Cezanne worship this incendiary painter of everyday people? Because, as a new show reveals, his range and compassion were staggering
Not many of the world’s greatest works of art can be called funny. Yet The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals has an undeniable cocky humour. A painting of this unknown man has hung in London’s Wallace Collection since the 19th century, his flamboyant upward turned moustache and tiny point of a beard setting off the confident brightness of his eyes above a huge frilly ruff and a sleeve laced with gold. Now the gallery is about to celebrate its most famous painting in an exhibition offering a chance to look closer at other male portraits by Hals.
So what has his cavalier got to laugh about? Maybe what’s tickling him is the fact that a Dutch artist who died poor in 1666 would help inspire the birth of modern art. We’re conditioned to think of this as something that suddenly happened in 1900, but the Paris avant garde had already kicked away the foundations of the past. From Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet to Paul Cézanne, these 19th-century rebels pulverised convention and forced art into their brutal, ironic modern world of railways, brothels and absinthe. And the incendiary creator of The Laughing Cavalier was their hero.