The Daily Telegraph

The Wallace Collection bucks the trend in a Cavalier fashion

Frans Hals: The Male Portrait Wallace Collection, London W1 ★★★★☆

- Alastair Sooke

You’ve got to hand it to Xavier Bray, the director of the Wallace Collection: at a time when museums and galleries are obsessed with diversity, he opens a show that couldn’t be more pale, stale or male if it tried. Inside a long, narrow chamber, we find 13 spotlit, single portraits of rich and powerful blokes, painted by another chap, Frans Hals (c. 1582-1666), the Dutch Golden Age master renowned for swashbuckl­ing brushwork.

You can tell Bray is nervous, because, in the catalogue, he frets that the gallery’s new exhibition may feel “misplaced in today’s world”. Not half. Yet, he argues, museums should not “shy away” from any theme: “If one cannot explore ideas in a civic space, where can one?”

Well, good for him. Because the show, boasting important loans from Amsterdam, New York, Prague, Toronto and Washington, as well as an audio guide by Grayson Perry, is exhilarati­ng. With any luck, it should boost the fortunes of the Wallace, where visitor numbers have fallen through the floor.

Nearly all the exhibits are hung together, without partitions, against walls painted with fuzzy patches of maroon that, curiously, evoke Rothko’s Seagram murals at the Tate. The effect is like wandering into a fancy-dress party held in some all-male private members’ club. At one end is the show’s debonair star, as well as its raison d’être, the Wallace’s beloved Laughing Cavalier, that primped and perfumed dandy, with a buoyant waxed moustache and the smirking aura of a frontman, for which the filthy-rich 4th Marquess of Hertford shelled out 51,000 francs at a sale in Paris in 1865, when Hals was only just starting to re-emerge after a long spell in obscurity. After his death, and until the 19th century, when he was hailed as a harbinger of modern art, Hals was baselessly written off as a feckless alcoholic, perhaps because so many of his figures seem boisterous and jolly.

At the Wallace, all his men in black appear alone, often with one assertive arm akimbo, against shadowy greige background­s – but if looking at such monotonous subject matter sounds about as exciting as attending a Mennonite meeting, think again. For these works demonstrat­e that Hals revolution­ised portraitur­e by deploying various strategies to make his likenesses immediate, sparky and natural, while simultaneo­usly ensuring that his own virtuosity was always in full view.

Consider the burly brewer whose dashing satin doublet strains over a bulging belly: I bet he was up for a laugh. I’d be wary, though, of Tieleman Roosterman, a rakish textile tycoon who stands proud, hair carefully combed, one eyebrow subtly raised.

It’s startling how fashion-conscious all these peacocking aldermen, burgomaste­rs and merchants were. Sometimes, Hals carefully replicates their dressy details: the sleeve of the Cavalier’s slashed doublet, for instance, embroidere­d with tiny amorous emblems, is as rich and detailed as a Shakespear­ean sonnet. Yet, compare a sleeve worn by the spendthrif­t patrician Jasper Schade, whom Hals painted two decades later: a cascade of zigzagging marks, representi­ng the shimmer of light on material, it looks almost abstract. Hals’s swift, nonchalant handling of paint could be dazzlingly bold.

From Sept 22. Details: 020 7563 9500; wallace

 ??  ?? Swashbuckl­ing brushwork: Frans Hals’s Willem Coymans
Swashbuckl­ing brushwork: Frans Hals’s Willem Coymans

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