This is perhaps the best-known artwork in the Wallace Collection, although I hadn’t even realised that it was there, so it was a pleasant surprise when I saw it. It was painted by Frans Hals (1582-1666) in 1624, although it’s not known who the figure in the artwork is. One thing that is known is that the sitter was aged 26 and we know this because Hals wrote it on the back of the painting, although perhaps he could have popped on the name of who he had painted as well.
And, copyright of the Wallace Collection, is this much better image.
It’s known that the painting was sold in The Hague in 1770, although unclear where it was before that, later being purchased by Comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier in 1822. It then came into the collections of Richard Seymour-Conway, who outbid Baron James de Rothschild at an auction in 1865. It was probably best he did win this battle, where the painting went for over six times its estimate, as he allowed it to go on display at Bethnal Green Museum between 1872 and 1875. It was there that it was talked about because of the enigmatic smile, although it’s more the moustache creating this jovial impression. The painting was then returned after its period on public display and came into the collections of Richard Wallace, from where it was donated to the nation.
It wasn’t until 1888 that the reference ‘Laughing Cavalier’ was made to the artwork, although this is now what it is commonly referred to. All of this burst of activity in the nineteenth century also saw the reputation of Hals improve, as he had fallen a little into obscurity in the decades after his death.