139 – Cavalier attitudes

Judith Leyster, The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), c. 1629. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.

Famously, Frans Hals’ painting, The Laughing Cavalier, is neither laughing, nor a cavalier – I will talk about what he is and who he might be this coming Monday, 25 October at 6pm in the context of the Wallace Collection’s small (but perfectly formed) exhibition Frans Hals: The Male Portrait. In subsequent weeks in November I will talk about more exhibitions – Vermeer: On Reflection (in Dresden) on Tuesday 2, Hogarth and Europe (Tate Britain) on Tuesday 16, and Alison Watt: A Portrait without Likeness (Scottish National Portrait Gallery) on Tuesday 23 – all of these are now on sale. But for now, I’d like to talk about another painting which does not show a cavalier, by someone who could be considered one of Hals’ greatest rivals – although she was also one of his admirers – Judith Leyster. It seems only fair to look at the work of a woman, as the Wallace’s exhibition has an almost ‘dare to be square’ attitude – which is acknowledged by the director of the museum in his preface to the catalogue – given that it focuses on paintings of white men by a white man, with no suggestion that there might be any other type of person in the world. You could argue, I suppose, that as the curator of the exhibition is a woman, that the male bias is actually OK. But as far as I know, no one has suggested that it isn’t! Anyway, it’s a good excuse to talk about Judith Leyster – not that she needs an excuse. She was a great artist – we should talk about her more often.

Today’s picture is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and their online catalogue calls it by the title, or titles, that I have used above: The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier). It’s worth remembering that neither of these would have been used by Leyster herself. Apart from the fact that she was Dutch (and so anything she called the painting would have been in Dutch), artists simply didn’t give paintings titles back then – it was more common to describe what was depicted – ‘two drunk men with a skeleton’, for example. I have talked about the issue of names before – way back at the beginning of the blog, I think, with paintings like The Fighting Temeraire (which is actually just part of Turner’s title). So many paintings – The Laughing Cavalier included – have been given nicknames relatively recently (by which I mean the late 19th or early 20th Centuries), and even though they often have little or nothing to do with the subject of the painting, they have stuck irrevocably. I don’t know when today’s picture got the two titles it now has, but only the first is accurate. None of the people represented is dressed as a cavalier – although you could argue that the skeleton might have been one when alive. However, The Last Drop is entirely to the point.

Clearly, The Last Drop doesn’t only refer to this particular drink, even if the seated man on the left is on the verge of draining his stoneware tankard dry. This is also the last drop he will ever drink. There may be a small reserve of liquid in the very bulbous body of the vessel, but short of tipping it up vertically, there is not much more he could do to finish it off. It doesn’t really matter, though, as Death is watching eagerly to see if is time to finish him. The skeleton itself is an unmistakable Memento Mori ­(literally: ‘remember death’) – but it (or is it he? I’m going for ‘he’) is also holding other symbolic objects. Held aloft in his right hand is an hour glass, with the last few grains of sand trickling through. Time is nearly up, and the skeleton smiles gleefully as he displays the hour glass as evidence that soon it will be time for him pounce. As if a skeleton on its own wasn’t enough, he has a second skull in his right hand, clutching a lit candle with it, as he bends over to check that the drink – and so, it seems, the man’s life – is finally done. When it is, the candle will presumably be snuffed out, and the drinker, too, will ‘snuff it’, if I can use that most disrespectful of terms for death. Meanwhile, the candle sheds an unnatural glare around the profile of the drinker. Apart from that harsh light, the man is already in the shadows. Almost inevitably it reminds me of ‘the Scottish Play’ (and, if you can get a return, try and get to see the production at the Almeida Theatre, which is on until 27 November – tickets for the last set of performances go on sale today, 21 October). Here is ‘the’ speech from Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The hourglass tells us that the man on the left is at the last hour of his recorded time, and that the brief candle will soon be out. But this man has not drunk alone.

His standing companion has clearly had more than one too many, judging by the garish expression on his face – not to mention his all-too-evident teeth, which are rarely, if ever, seen in paintings of respectable people. Here too the expression is enhanced by the harsh lighting, and neatly framed by the brilliant highlights around the rim of his hat, and also by the bravura painting of the turned up trim of his collar. The sleeve is wonderfully handled too, with free, slashing brushstrokes of barely-mixed lighter and darker reds modelling the folds in the odd, baggy garment. Rather than the skeleton’s hourglass, this chap holds a smoking pipe aloft – another symbol, like excessive drinking, of a dissolute lifestyle, and also, of death. Like life, smoke is insubstantial, fleeting, and is gone before you know it.

That we are near the end is confirmed by the fact that this drink too (like the fun) is finished. Nothing remains in the upturned tankard, every last drop is drained. And as for the costume, it is extraordinary. Such a large, voluminous jacket, which is worn over a dark blue unbuttoned doublet. Underneath that is a white blouse, also unbuttoned, revealing far more of the reveller himself than the strict rules of 17th Century Holland would have allowed.

The tankard is maybe too brilliantly lit for an object which is at that distance from a candle, but I’m sure that this is a choice by the artist to make the whole painting seem more garish and more glaring, thus emphasizing what is important, and what is at stake. But it is also done to catch your eye – it draws your attention for more reasons than one. In 1903 this painting was attributed to Frans Hals, who was, after all, the master of the freely handled brushstroke. However, in that year someone noticed the letters ‘JL’ written on the mug – the signature of Judith Leyster (1609-60) – just to the left of the handle, where it joins the body of the vessel and is so brilliantly illuminated. If people had seen it before, they had failed to identify it, probably because until 1893 (just ten years before) she had fallen into obscurity, only to be rediscovered when her signature was identified on a different painting. The ‘JL’ is usually followed by a star, as her name, Leyster, means ‘Lodestar’ – another name for the pole star, the one used by sailors as a fixed point for navigation. She was famous in her lifetime, and even praised, punningly, as the ‘leading star’ in art. In 1633 she was the first woman to join the Haarlem artists’ guild – indeed, she was the first woman in Western Europe to be admitted to any painters’ guild. It was probably to celebrate this that she painted the wonderful self portrait which I wrote about during lockdown 1, on Day 34 of ‘Picture of the Day’. Leyster probably trained with Frans Hals, although there is no firm evidence for that. However, she did witness the baptism of one of his children in 1631: they were clearly (at that stage) on very good terms. Her status as a ‘Master’ meant that she was allowed to teach, and in 1635 she took on three pupils, although one of them subsequently left her to work under Hals. She sued the older master, and although the student’s mother paid Leyster punitive damages (but only half of what she asked for) and Hals also paid a penalty, Leyster too was fined by the guild for not having registered the student in the first place… But, as the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity, and work picked up… at least until the following year, when she married fellow artist Jan Miense Molenaer. There are hardly any works by her dated after 1636, the year in which she married. It could have been that, as a mother of five, she simply didn’t have the time to paint. Although it could also have been that, as a man, Molenaer was in a better position to sell the paintings, and so she worked as one of his assistants – a member of the workshop, but not its leader. It’s not that he was taking credit for her work, but that it was financially expedient for her to work this way. But back to the painting: why is the standing reveller dressed in this unusual manner?

His unusual garb ties the painting inextricably to another by Leyster, the Merry Company, now in a private collection, which was sold by Christie’s in 2018 for a little shy of two million pounds. They are of a similar size, and although the Merry Company is a little smaller, it has probably been cut down.  Seen next to each other like this, the similarities are clear. The two revellers in our painting are seen at a later stage of merriment – the plumed hat has been lost, and the man in red is now wearing the blue hat of his companion. He has also lost his blue belt, allowing his jacket to fall open – and the blue doublet has also been unbuttoned. He also seems to have grabbed a different tankard, while the seated figure drinks from the same vessel he had earlier. Their drinking started in daylight, and has continued well into the night – they have lost their more soberly dressed companion, but their debauchery has summoned Death. The moral is clear: it’s all very well to have some fun – but don’t take it too far. The baggy costumes – so unlike the closely tailored fashions of the 17th Century – are derived from Italian theatre, the Commedia dell’Arte, and had been adopted as carnival costumes by the 16th Century. So this could be vastenavond – the Dutch word for the night before Lent (literally ‘the evening before fasting’) – or, in other words, Carnival.

The Merry Company must have been significant for Leyster, as she quoted from it in her Self portrait. Surely there were reasons for this choice: technical analysis has shown that originally a female figure was depicted on the canvas, which Leyster covered with the fiddle player later on. It could be that she wanted to show that she was the master of at least two different genres – portraiture and the one annoyingly known as genre painting (i.e. normal people doing normal things). She was the only woman to paint genre scenes, after all. However, the reason for this choice might be more sophisticated. In Het Schilder-Boeck – ‘The Book of Painters’ – written by Karel van Mander in 1604, the author refers to a Dutch proverb, stating that ‘the more a painter he becomes, the wilder he gets’. By including the wild fiddler from The Merry Company, Leyster could be replacing ‘he’ with ‘she’.

I’d love to know what happened to the red hat with its oversized plume, though. It must have been lost somewhere along the way. Maybe it was picked up by Frans Hals, or taken by the wayward student, as Hals painted a young man wearing a very similar hat – and holding a skull – in one of his works in the National Gallery. If you want to see what I mean, click on that link, as it’s not a portrait, so I probably won’t be talking about it on Monday.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

5 thoughts on “139 – Cavalier attitudes

  1. I thought the drinker in the left in “our” painting looked like the middle figure in the Merry Company – dark jacket, shoes etc. You suggest he is the one who has left – or am I misinterpreting “more soberly dressed “? Loved the Wallace Exhibition – great audio guide, incidentally- and am looking forward to Monday’s talk. Judith


    1. By ‘more soberly dressed’ I meant the man in breeches and stockings at the back of the ‘Merry Company’ – he is the one who has left. The seated figure in ‘The Last Drop’ still has long, pale blue leggings – but that would mean that he had found a dark coat from somewhere. I don’t think the is actually a rigid connection between the two, to be honest, but it tells a nice story anyway.


  2. The Hals work (which looks like a portrait to me!) is dated to 1626-8, when he was in his prime, and the two Leysters to c.1629, when she was aged just 20.

    Perhaps it is just my imagination, but the chap in the red looks very similar in all three. I think they were both working in Haarlem, so perhaps there is a shared model? Perhaps an actor? Or is this just a “type”?

    Judith, from his blue legs, I think the chap in the blue pyjamas/pantaloons has put on a dark coat, no?


  3. One of Hals’ great skills was to make genre paintings look like portraits (they would very probably have had models), and make portraits look like genre paintings – he is blurring the boundaries. And yes, as so often my musings on the hat were fanciful – it could easily be a shared prop, worn by a shared model – or just referring to common features of Haarlem cultural life. The link between the two Leyster paintings is not rigid… there are more variations than the few I picked out.


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