Friday, September 29, 2017

The Art of Laughter: Humour in the Golden Age

Frans Hals Museum
From 11 November

Seldom have more humorous paintings been made than in the Dutch Golden Age. Prosperity and a new buying public encouraged painters to think up an enormous variety of visual jokes. Naughty children, stupid peasants, foolish dandies and drunkards, quack doctors, pimps and procuresses, lazy serving maids and lusty ladies–they appear in large numbers in Golden Age masterpieces. The humour implicit in the works would have been evident to contemporary viewers. 

Frans Hals is often called ‘the master of the laugh’. More than any other painter in the Golden Age, he was able to bring a vitality to his portraits that made it appear as if his models could just step out of the past into the present. Hals was one of the few painters in the seventeenth century who dared portray his figures – often common folk – with a hearty laugh and bared teeth. Merriment and jokes are prominent features in his genre paintings; artists in the Golden Age frequently used it in their work. Now – centuries later – the visual jokes are harder to fathom. A great deal of new research into the field has been carried out, particularly in the last twenty years, and we are beginning to get an idea of the full extent of seventeenth-century humour.

The exhibition showcases some sixty masterpieces from the Low Countries and beyond by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Judith Leyster, Adriaen Brouwer, Gerard van Honthorst, Jan Miense Molenaer and Nicolaes Maes. Works by these and other artists will be shown in the context of an introduction and seven specific themes, including mischief, farce and love and lust, and one room is devoted to each of them.

The exhibition ends with the comical self-portrait, in which painters feature in their own jokes. Thus humour eventually arrives at the artists themselves, creating an intriguing finale.

There will also be a small selection of joke books, incredibly popular in the seventeenth century, which confirm the reputation of the Dutch as an unusually cheerful and humorous people. According to an Italian contemporary, the writer Lodovico Guicciardini, who was living in the Low Countries at that time, the Dutch were ‘very convivial, and above all jocular, amusing and comical with words, but sometimes too much.’


A catalogue is being published to coincide with The Art of Laughter: Humour in the Golden Age with contributions by the curators of the exhibition, Anna Tummers, Curator of Old Masters at the Frans Hals Museum | De Hallen Haarlem, Jasper Hillegers, Assistant Curator of Old Masters, Elmer Kolfin, lecturer at the University of Amsterdam and Mariët Westermann, Golden Age specialist and Vice-President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The catalogue is being published by Uitgeverij Waanders.

Frans Hals,
oil on canvas, 75 x 61,5 cm,
Museumlandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel

Gerard van Honthorst,
Smiling Girl, a Courtisane, Holding an Obscene Image, 
oil on canvas, 46,9 x 60 cm, Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis

Pieter van Roestraeten,
The Licentious Kitchen Maid, 
oil on canvas,73,5 x 63 cm, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem

Jan Steen,
Children Teaching a Cat to Dance,
c. 1662/63,
olieverf op paneel, 68,5 x 59 cm,
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam