Frans Hals, along with Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer, were three famous painters who dominated the Golden Age of Dutch Art in the 17th century.
Frans Hals, born circa 1581, introduced a vitality and expressivenesss not previously seen in portraiture. Of the 300 or so paintings he created, nearly all are portraits, typically of Haarlem citizens as individuals or in groups. Among his most famous artwork is The Laughing Cavalier, also called The Merry Cavalier.
Here, the courtly soldier epitomizes Baroque gallantry and seemingly flaunts his amorous tendencies – his sleeves are ornately decorated with bees of Cupid and Mercury’s winged staff and hat. The intricacy of the embroidery is juxtaposed by Frans Hals’ broad, energetic brushwork in the cavalier’s black sash. As in most portraits by Frans Hals, a fleeting moment is captured with immediacy.
Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier. Oil on canvas. 1624. 33 3/4″ x 27″. The Wallace Collection, London.
Fast forward three centuries to the 1920s, a time during which the three masters of the Dutch Golden Age were frequently imitated and forged.
Noted art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot had devoted himself to determining which 17th century Dutch paintings were authentic, and which were created by followers or forgers. In 1924, he published a brief article titled, “Some Recently Discovered Works by Frans Hals”, announcing his discovery of The Merry Cavalier. De Groot proclaimed it an authentic Frans Hals painting, after which the work was sold to an auction house. Shortly thereafter, the auction house claimed it a forgery and demanded partial reimbursement of the purchase price. Profoundly offended, De Groot stated that if he was wrong, he’d donate his personal (and sizeable) art collection to Holland’s museums, further vowing “never to express another word, either in writing or verbally, about the genuineness of an unknown Frans Hals.”
The subsequent trial provided incontrovertible proof that De Groot had erred — although Frans Hals died in 1666, the blue paint in the cavalier’s coat was first available in 1826; another blue in the background was made in 1820, while the white in the collar was zinc white, only made after 1781. Furthermore, the canvas was attached to its stretcher with modern, paint-splattered nails, meaning that they were positioned before the painter began.
In spite of this data, De Groot was steadfast in his conviction that he’d found an authentic Frans Hals work. Before the trial concluded and a verdict announced, De Groot – contending he was the victim of injustice – purchased Merry Cavalier for himself. The following year, he published a booklet entitled True or False? Eye or Chemistry?. Here he stated that a connoisseur’s eye was the best determination of artistic authenticity, adding that scientific analyses were beside the point. “A forger could scarcely imagine a more welcome message”, notes Edward Dolnick in The Forger’s Spell.
If you are engaged by the complexities of art forgery — in the work themselves and in the mind of the forger — I strongly recommend Dolnick’s work, “a true story of Vermeer, Nazis and the greatest art hoax of the twentieth century”.
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