This cheerfully laughing boy with sparkly eyes and dishevelled hair is not a portrait, but a ‘tronie’ – a study of a laughing child. Laughing figures are unusual, as laughter is one of the most difficult expressions to capture.
The virtuoso Hals painted the boy very directly and spontaneously, using remarkably loose brushstrokes. And yet he knew exactly what he was doing. The bridge of the boy’s nose, for example, is painted with a single well-placed stroke of white.
This is the most engaging laugh in seventeenth-century Dutch painting: a boy’s disarming grin rendered in loose brushstrokes by Frans Hals. Not in the least inhibited, the boy shows off his far from pearly white teeth. Also laid down in rapid strokes, his tousled hair adds to the exuberance radiating from this painting. So infectious is his merriment, both for modern viewers and also undoubtedly those of the seventeenth century, that it is almost impossible not to return his laugh.
The Laughing Boy is not a portrait. Here, Hals was not interested in producing a likeness of an existing boy, but rather in recording a spontaneous expression of joy. Smiles and laughter are notoriously difficult to depict, as is clear in the work of other artists. A painted smile quite often appears forced; sometimes it even resembles a grimace, while a burst of laughter was intended. Hals’ keen sense of observation and inimitable technique ensured that he surpassed his fellow painters in this area.
Hals painted several laughing boys and girls; in some instances as part of a series of the senses. These paintings were very popular, as evidenced by the substantial number of copies that were made of them. The fact that Hals also portrayed people laughing is unusual. Unlike now, in the seventeenth century people virtually never had themselves limned laughing. However, such a different kind of commission could safely be entrusted to an artist so skilled in depicting expressions. Nevertheless, a laugh as broad and spirited as in the Laughing Boy occurs nowhere in Hals’ portraits.
(this is a reworked version of a text published in: L. van der Vinde, Children in the Mauritshuis, The Hague 2007, pp. 44-45)
Frans Hals (Antwerp 1582/1583 - 1666 Haarlem)
On view in
Material and technical details
30.45 cm diameter
linksonder, boven de schouder: FHF ineen
Albert, Baron von Oppenheim, Cologne, before 1876-1912; his sale, Berlin (Lepke), 27 October 1914, postponed to 19 March 1918, lot 16; Marie-Anne Friedländer-Fuld, Baroness de Goldschmidt-Rothschild, Berlin and Paris, 1918-1968; purchased with the support of the Rembrandt Association, the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund and the Friends of the Mauritshuis Foundation, 1968