The Wallace Collection and Movember — The Male Portrait Partnership
The Wallace Collection’s current exhibition Frans Hals: The Male Portrait brings together a selection of the greatest portraits by the seventeenth-century Dutch master to explore his highly innovative approach to male portraiture. At first glance, these paintings seem very similar to each other — they are all men posing alone and predominantly wearing black. But closer inspection reveals a wealth of details and we quickly begin to get a sense of each man’s personality and broader cultural trends.
These portraits shed light on contemporary ideas of masculinity. We can learn a lot about manhood in seventeenth-century Holland by looking at the deliberate decisions made by both Hals and his sitters regarding their depiction. Much has been said about the way in which, in 2021, we create a ‘curated’ version of ourselves on social media. In much the same way, these men used their portraits to create a self-conscious image of themselves. The portraits in Frans Hals: The Male Portrait show these men meeting, or striving to meet, various conventional standards of the age — standards of wealth, of fashion, of physical strength and capability.
The sitters wear clothing and accessories which display their wealth. The extensive embroidery on the sleeve of The Laughing Cavalier (above), or the costly leather gloves in the Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman (below), are obvious status symbols signaling wealth and high social standing. Even the iconic moustache and pointed beard of The Laughing Cavalier provide an indication of his status: only men of financial means could sport such facial hair since it required regular visits to the local barber-surgeon for a shave, trim and styling. It is also clear that military and physical prowess was valued by these men. There is a swagger and a sense of physical strength in many of these pictures; the rapier carried by The Laughing Cavalier and various insignia referencing Pieter van den Broecke’s position as an admiral in the Dutch East India Company show that these men wanted to show off their strength.
In today’s society many of us are attempting to move away from these old-fashioned and redundant notions of masculinity as something tied to physical and mental ‘strength’. However, like the men in these portraits, twenty-first-century men still feel pressure to conform to certain conventions. There still remains an idea that ‘real men’ should look a certain way, not express their emotions or discuss their mental health. This can create additional pressure that discourages men from talking about their problems or seeking help if they are going through a tough time. Men’s health charity Movember encourages men to open up and talk about their mental health. Movember is working hard to eliminate the stigma men face in discussing their mental health, with a focus on men staying socially connected and becoming more open to discussing their health and significant moments in their lives.
The Wallace Collection and Movember have partnered to highlight ideas of masculinity and its pressures throughout the ages. This exhibition shows that although our concept of masculinity has changed, the pressure on men to conform to certain ideals of manhood, so prevalent in today’s world of social media, is nothing new.
To find our more about Movember, visit their website.