Few of the world’s finest works of art can be described as amusing. Nonetheless, Frans Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier has an unmistakable arrogant humour.

Since the 19th century, a picture of this unnamed man has stood in London’s Wallace Collection, his extravagant upward turned moustache and small point of a beard setting off the confident brightness of his eyes above a big ruffled ruff and a gold-laced sleeve. Now, the museum is preparing to honor its most renowned painting with an exhibition that will allow visitors to have a closer look at other male portraits by Hals.

So, what is it that his cavalier is laughing about? Perhaps what irritates him is the fact that a poor Dutch artist who died in 1666 inspired the creation of modern art.

We’ve been taught to conceive of this as something that occurred all of a sudden in 1900, yet the Paris avant-garde had already demolished the past’s foundations. From Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet to Paul Cézanne, these 19th-century rebels smashed tradition and pushed art into their harsh, sarcastic contemporary world of trains, brothels, and absinthe.

And The Laughing Cavalier’s fiery creator was their hero.

It was a remarkable accomplishment for an artist whose subject matter was restricted. “He painted portraits, nothing nothing nothing but that!” remarked Vincent van Gogh about Hals in 1888. In his letter to Émile Bernard, he goes on to describe the kind of pictures his colleague created: “Portraits of soldiers, gatherings of officers, portraits of magistrates assembled for republican business, portraits of matrons with pink or yellow skin, wearing white bonnets… He depicted the tipsy drunkard, the witchy old fishwife, the gorgeous Gypsy whore, infants in swaddling cloths, the brave, bon vivant gentleman…”

This is a lovely recreation of the paintings Hals produced during his lengthy but provincial career as the go-to professional portraitist in Haarlem in the early 1600s. Hals was born in Antwerp, but when he was a child, his parents left war-torn Flanders for the fledgling Dutch Republic. Whereas other European countries’ art was created for their palaces and churches, Protestant, commercial Holland had a thriving middle-class art market and a voracious demand for paintings to adorn mansions.

From Vermeer’s Delft to Rembrandt’s Leiden to Hals’s Haarlem, each city in this tiny geographical region appeared to produce its own unique geniuses. Many artists specialized to meet the need for simple, daily art: some painted cheeses, skulls, and lobsters on a tabletop, while others painted ships at sea, cows, or flowers. Hals had just done something to them.

The everyday charm of Hals is captured in Van Gogh’s passionate writing; the unassuming manner he chronicles a complete community. He compares Hals to one of his live idols, revolutionary 19th-century writer Émile Zola, who set out to depict current French society, syphilis and all, in his book Émile Zola. Van Gogh was drawn to simplicity.

As a result, he reacted to Hals’ directness with emotion. He shared this passion with the radical French painters Courbet and Manet, who created reproductions of Hals’ paintings.

It’s difficult to imagine how fresh and shockingly revolutionary 17th-century Dutch art seemed to 19th-century eyes today. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is today one of the world’s most famous art museums, and Dutch art is included in popular books and films such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch.

In 1800, however, both Hals and Vermeer were forgotten. The art of the 1600s in the Netherlands was seen to be too “low” to be significant, too preoccupied with mundane aspects of daily life.

It was a local, almost parochial art form. We recognize many of Van Gogh’s paintings as nameless pictures, not identifiable individuals, as he makes clear in his list of Hals’ kinds. They lead us into a tiny, restricted universe where we meet the social winners and losers of 17th-century Haarlem where we do know their identities.

From his two most renowned group pictures, which are preserved in the city’s Frans Hals Museum, the Regents and Regentesses of the town’s almshouses look back at us coldly. But it wasn’t these dignitaries who drew Courbet’s communist attention.

Courbet witnessed a picture by Hals of a laughing old lady in pauper clothing hoisting a massive pewter beer tankard as an owl sits on her shoulder in 1869, and it inspired him. One year before this visionary artist would risk his life and ruin his career by joining the Paris Commune, he was so struck that he set down to replicate its ragged authenticity.

Courbet was attracted to Hals’ picture of an outsider, but he had no idea how revolutionary it was. In the nineteenth century, the picture he reproduced was believed to be of an unknown lady or possibly a “tronie,” a kind of fictitious portrait made by Dutch painters as an experiment. It does, however, have the name Malle Babbe – “Mad Babs” – inscribed on it. According to Haarlem’s municipal records, this was most likely a genuine lady called Barbara Claes, who was a patient at the local mental institution where one of Hals’ sons was also known to have resided.

Courbet and Van Gogh were aware of her reality without realizing it. Malle Babbe is unmistakably the “old fishwife full of a witch’s mirth” described by Van Gogh.

These painters were captivated not just by Hals’ work, but also by his life. They saw a wild-living bohemian, a reflection of themselves, behind his paintings. The almshouse bosses in Haarlem were imitated by Manet.

A tale arose that Hals was an almshouse prisoner who took vengeance on the almshouse’s overseers by depicting them severely.

Art historians despise romantic myths like this, but the scant facts concerning Hals indicate he was an edge figure. He remarried so soon after his first wife died that he may have already been involved in an adulterous romance. His second wife was often arrested for domestic violence.

He was in a continuous state of debt. And the only reason he didn’t end up in the poorhouse was because the city of Haarlem supported him financially in his latter years.

His iconic, sympathetic picture of Malle Babbe, the “madwoman,” may really depict one outcast’s affection for another.

Another work by Hals places him at the forefront of French contemporary art. The Gipsy Girl, or La Bohémienne, is Paris’s more shady Laughing Cavalier. Louis La Caze left this picture of a young lady in crudely constructed, freely painted clothing that primarily serve to highlight her breasts as she smiles widely to the Louvre in 1869. And, although he seems to have believed it was an innocent painting of a “gipsy girl,” Van Gogh was well aware of its true meaning: this is the work he refers to as “the beautiful gipsy whore” in his time.

Hals’ depiction of a 17th-century sex worker is unmistakably provocative and titillating, bringing us to the core of his modernity. It’s obvious what appealed to the avant-garde: the tension between poverty and sensuality.

In French contemporary art, Degas’ Absinthe Drinker and Toulouse-Montmartre Lautrec’s ladies are descendants of this rebellious 17th-century outcast. Reality was the motivating factor behind French avant-garde arts.

Writers and artists alike were driven to observe and acknowledge the real world around them, in all its dirt and beauty.

It’s the unadulterated truth Vincent saw at La Bohémienne. He had a fight with his preacher father about the perils of French literature before visiting Paris, and he lived with a sex worker for a while in pursuit of the bohemian life.

For him, Hals was as raw and genuine as a filthy French book. La Bohémienne not only links Hals to that side of contemporary art, but it also explains how he came to have such a stark reality. He was aware of a recently deceased Italian art rebel, as were several Dutch artists.

Caravaggio portrayed masculine sex workers dangerously enticing the cardinals who paid for art in Rome in the 1590s. Caravaggio faced art with reality in a terrible way.

A group of Dutch painters from Utrecht, whose work Hals would have recognized, traveled to Rome to study Caravaggio’s technique and bring it back to the Netherlands, but the Utrecht Caravaggists capture Caravaggio’s light and shadows without fully comprehending the hazardous character of his art.

Hals is one of them. Caravaggio’s sex workers’ boldness is translated into a heterosexual picture in La Bohémienne. There are additional indications of his debt to Caravaggio as well.

The youngster in his picture A Young Man with a Skull, at London’s National Gallery, extends a hand directly towards us, as if it were emerging from the canvas. It looks uncannily like a similar jarring hand in Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, which is also housed in the same museum.

This is the realism that made Hals a contemporary artist’s idol. He, like Caravaggio, blurs the line between art and life. The Laughing Cavalier introduced such brilliance to the UK, straight from avant-garde Paris, where Hals had been rediscovered.

It was auctioned in Paris in 1865, just as Hals’ newfound celebrity was exploding there. It was purchased and shown in London by the 4th Marquis of Hertford, a libertine Englishman living abroad.

His valuables were to be kept as the Wallace Collection following his death.

Today, Hals is not as well-known as Rembrandt or Vermeer. He had the misfortune of having The Meagre Company, one of his most magnificent paintings, hanging next to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum.

He seems to be doomed to be the second greatest Dutch portraitist of the seventeenth century. But Hals has a few qualities that Rembrandt lacks.

He has the ability to make you chuckle. As we gaze at his quick brushstrokes and catch an amused eye gazing back, we realize that his lightness is the most contemporary aspect of him all.

Thanks to Jonathan Jones at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.