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The Art of Laughter. Humor on the paintings by Frans Hals and other artists is to be explored at a major exhibition in the Netherlands

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"Rarely have more humorous paintings been produced than in the Dutch Golden Age. Naughty children, stupid peasants, foolish dandies and befuddled drunks, quack doctors, pimps, procuresses, lazy maids and lusty ladies — they figure in large numbers in Golden Age masterpieces," this is how they say about the upcoming exhibition "The Art of Laughter: Humour in the Golden Age" on the Frans Hals Museum web site.
The museum annotation guides us rightly, as the Dutch painting of that period abounds in smiles and laughter. Elegant ladies and gentlemen smile to spectators and each other, playing children trill with laughter, revellers guffaw at a dirty joke… In those distant years, elusive laughter was the desired goal for great masters and amateurs: it was depicted by the Utrecht Caravaggists, countless masters of gallant scenes, portrayers of tavern life, and also Rembrandt, Vermeer and Brauer.
Though, the great Frans Hals was the best to paint laughter.
Until thirty years old, this artist from Haarlem, a pupil of the mannerist Karel van Mander, was not particularly known. And after thirty, he was only famous for portraits.
About three hundred works attributed to him can be divided into two groups: custom portraits and paintings made with no particular reason.
His customers were burghers, noblemen, scientists, militia companies, and guardianship councils. For his own pleasure he painted children, actors, musicians, innkeepers, fishermen, beggars… He liked to unite his subjects in movement, catch them in the middle of an unfinished, blurry gesture.
Liveliness of his brush made people forgive his "lack of design" and creative hooliganism, since he often painted his pictures without underpainting, in one or two sessions; he could casually wipe a part of the background with his palm; he never focused much on the texture of a fabric, giving only a hint (and still very few people painted fur, cloth, crumpled lace and linen so convincingly). But the main magic of Hals was not the liveliness of faces and poses, fluency of painting and brave smears, as other masters of that time could do it either.

The true miracle of the great Haarlemer was the laughter of his characters, the most elusive part of human facial expressions, which he caught with the tip of his brush.
This painting by young Hals, depicts a Shrovetide masquerade. Here is the rare case when the artist provides a plot to the viewer. Such verbosity was not peculiar to him, as his main niche was portraits. Moreover, the "Shrovetide Queen" is full of symbols that Holland loved so much, unlike with Hals, who never considered them valuable: the costumes of the men claiming the beauty’s attention immediately show what she can expect from them.
France Hals. Jolly Shrovetide (Merry Society). Fragment 3

The candidate in black has a necklace of small sausages and empty eggshells, a saggy bagpipe lies on the table beside him, which indicates that he would be rather useless lover. At the same time, the red beret of the gentleman with the Mephistophelian appearance who leans the back of the "royal throne", is decorated with one, but very weighty sausage, and a whole sausage dish is on the table in front of him.

However, the dirty meaning of the picture, understandable to anyone at that time, is not the main thing in the picture. The convincing vividness of the faces of all three characters is the cream of the work. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Hals seems to think not about the muscles that form a smile, he fixes not the anatomy, but the momentary impression instead, a cheek dimple, the teeth shining with saliva, a squint of the eyes sparkling with laughter.
The 17th century was the time when children in the paintings were not restricted to "infant Jesus, little John the Baptist, the angels" theme anymore. Artists were interested in children’s facial expressions and plastics, they were willing to paint children not only in the family portraits, but also as part of the genre scenes, providing them with touching accessories — bird cages, kittens and puppies.


However, Hals perfectly dispenses with unnecessary details. All he needs to make the viewer want to look at the child is the child himself.
France Hals. Laughing boy
Laughing boy
1625, 30.5×30.5 cm
Yet, generous Hals could give him a glass of water, a beer mug, a flute, or a straw for soap bubbles. His characters would do the rest themselves: they would laugh, intending to sip some water, joke with their younger brother, smile, exposing their large milk teeth, while their father drew again (because he surely painted his own children, seeing that Hals had them aplenty).
Musicians, actors, jesters were another topic
loved by Dutchmen in the 17th century.
The Utrecht Caravaggists liked painting "home concerts" with smart young men and flushed girls; the masters of gallant scenes painted "music lessons" with mincing students and bored young women over keys, and Hals preferred to paint amateur actors from the "rhetoricians" club (to which he belonged himself) and tavern musicians. This portrait of a jester with a lute looks much like Till Eulenspiegel, one of the most replicated works by Hals. Even during the artist’s lifetime, the engraving was executed after this work by Frans Hals; his apprentices tried to copy it, but the laughter made by Hals was not an easy task to do.
… In 1642, at the end of the glorious time of shooting companies,
Rembrandt brought confusion into militia portraiture.
Fifteen years earlier, Hals instilled it with joy.
His officers are feasting, jesting, laughing in a clear allusion for the "cupbearer" to refill their glasses without any regard for the viewer. Looking at them, you completely believe that there was time when the city government had to limit the duration of militia banquets to three days (if unlimited, the festivity could last for a week).
France Hals. The Gypsy Girl
The Gypsy Girl
1630, 58×52 cm
The famous "Gypsy Girl" by Hals, as well as the even more famous Vermeer’s "Girl with a Pearl Earring" are not custom-made portraits. Probably some other Dutch artist would turn it into a genre scene, adding a suiter (or even two) for the "gypsy girl", or an old procuress, or at least a few coins to show how much her sly smile and high bodiced breast cost. However, we already know Hals to be quite terse, he does not like to expand the story with moralizing details.
Over time, the laughter of the Hals’s heroes lost its former joy,
as gradually did the artist as well.
France Hals. Mulatto
Mulatto
1630, 72×57.5 cm
… His children grew up, his friends grew older, and the customers, once wasteful and proud of themselves, got bored, skimping and wishing to get smooth, serious and "well-crafted" paintings. One of the most famous "laughing" portraits of Hals depicts a stodgy old woman looking as if she had emerged from a horror story.
France Hals. Malle Babbe
Malle Babbe
1635, 75×64 cm
Grasping a polished tin beer mug with her right hand, she turns over her shoulder to say something to an invisible interlocutor with a grin on her lips. A second later, the spectators notice the owl sitting on the powerful shoulder, immovable like a stuffed bird. The writing on the portrait reads "Malle Babbe of Haarlem"; indeed, a certain Babbe, nicknamed Malle (loony) was registered in the hospice outside the city walls (in 1642, Pieter Hals, an insane son of Frans Hals, also was in this hospice).
The portrait of Malle Babbe can hardly be called funny or amusing, or at least a little attractive; it is only the subject herself who is happy with her own laughter — but one cannot take one’s eyes off her. Other artists felt the attractiveness of this image, and undoubtedly so did the customers. In New York Metropolitan Museum, there is another Malle Babbe, that was probably created by Hals’s pupil, and at least two Malle Babbes are handling fish in the Adriaen Brouwer-style genre pictures (he studied under Hals for some time).

In the 20th century, another version of the painting was created by a famous art forger Han van Meegeren, who had falsified the paintings by Vermeer. After the work had been finished, he left it in the workshop without even trying to distress it for sale. After all, it was a wise decision, since van Meegeren’s old woman carried neither movement, nor madness, nor charm.






Han van Meegeren. "Malle Babbe", 1940

However, van Meegeren is hard to blame for his failure; after all, the disciples of Hals, who watched their master working every day, did not manage to take from him something that is subtle, but very important, which gives his paintings the illusion of a paused life. Surprisingly, the closest to the teacher’s riddle was Judith Leyster (also Leijster), whose works were often attributed to Hals. Her early canvases also had the characteristic lively stroke and silvery light, but she only caught the real laughter in her self-portrait.
Judith Leyster. Self-portrait
Self-portrait
1630, 74.6×65.1 cm
"The Art of Laughter: Humor in the Golden Age" exhibition will take place in the Frans Hals Museum from November 11, 2017 to March 18, 2018.

The organizers promise to feature about 60 paintings and drawings both belonging to the museum and brought from other collections. The exposition will include the works by Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Judith Leyster, Adriaen Brouwer, Gerard van Honthorst, Jan Molenaer and Nicholas Mays.
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Author: Oksana Sanzharova.

Note: some of the pictures offered as the illustrations to the article may be missing at the exhibition.
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