The laughing cavalier isn't laughing and he probably isn't a cavalier, so you'll just have to accept that.
I know what you're thinking: "Frans Hals! Uncomfortably crass facial expressions, occasionally too slapdash, tsk tsk tsk,", but take a good look at this and try to deny that this painting can teach you how to paint.
Photo is from The Art Renewal Center
I think this is marvelous example of what an artist can do with paint. It looks like a tightly finished painting until you really start looking at it and then you see how the paint has been applied - broad strokes, then looser ones, layering, alla prima flourishes - it's just all there. He has modeled form beautifully and subtly but has also allowed his brush to dance around when it gets a chance to let loose, in the sleeves and embroidery. Franz has condensed some values and expanded upon others and has concentrated detail on the important facial characteristics. It's "about" the form and yet ... it isn't all about the form.
He isn't trying to impress us with excess detail and finish, though the painting is quite detailed and finished. He isn't trying to show off all the noodly little bits that you see when you zoom in on something, he's showing us the parts that mattered, what he could see and summarize. He's still being sensitive and discriminating but he is having a little fun there, too. He's made judgment calls. He's focusing selectively. Look how subtle the value change is in that hat, it's a value 10 with a value 9 [on some scales, values 1 and 2, respectively - why are there different value scales?! can't artists agree on anything?] to show where the light hits, that's all he says in terms of value changes for black, the hat basically is an interesting shape setting off his (detailed, paleish) face against the thinly painted neutral background.
So, Hals is exploring form while painting something beautiful and sensitive, includes bravura paint application and textured patterning, fits it all into a memorable strong design composition and lures us in with that wonderful hint of an amused smile. Is this a memorable painting? It sure is.
I recently read an essay by a critic which gives an in-depth analysis of this painting. I can't find it and I have a feeling it's somewhere in my art book library. It's also possible I read it someplace on the internet. I'm going to go ahead and post this anyway and if I find it later, I'll edit this and let you know.
I spent a very long time looking at this painting at the Wallace collection in London a while ago. When I stand in front of paintings I try to have a sketchbook with me so that I can remember what I'm learning, and I learned a lot here. Usually I move aside for the ubiquitous folks with their headphones so they can peer in and examine the surface, or at least they pretend to. Sometimes these people just stand in front of me for a long time, just to stand in front of me, I guess. (Why? They even do this when the rest of the room is empty. I'm not there that long, I'm not carefully copying every single thing, I'm just sketching with a pencil and making notes to myself. I'm usually off to the left of the painting, or to the right...why can't people just... stand next to me? Is that so bad? ) Once, in New York, a horrible lady with headphones asked a guard to move me aside because she thought I was standing too long (over two minutes) in front of a William Orpen painting and I was interfering with the sequence of her headphone narration.
I had a really nice experience at the The Wallace Collection, though. Try to go there if you make it to London. I can't remember if there were people with headphones there or not. While drawing, I looked up to see a little British boy, maybe, oh, 10 or so, timidly standing behind me with a notebook and he had his pencil out to draw the painting too - not as part of a school project, it was because he seemed to just want to do it. The fact that I was doing it made him decide it would be okay if he did it, too. I gently asked him to show me his drawing, he shyly did so, and we had a wonderful quiet little chat. I love artists.