Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Young Boy aged Three, 1598 

16th Century English School 

Portrait of a Young Boy aged Three, 1598, 16th Century English School
Oil on Panel
16th Century
44 ½ x 28 6/8 ins. (113 x 73 cm.)
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The present work is a very rare example of full-length child portraiture from the sixteenth century. The age of the young boy is inscribed in the top left corner of the panel along with the date ‘1597’, a date confirmed by dendrochronological analysis of the European panel on which it is painted.

The artist of this beguiling work remains at present unknown, although they were clearly familiar with the conventions of the leading court portraitists of the day, seen for example in the decorated receding floor which we see repeatedly used in the work of Robert Peake the elder (c.1551-1619) and Marcus Gheeraerts the younger (c.1561-1635/6).

As shown here, young boys during their youth were often be expected to wear dresses until the age of about six when they were then ceremoniously ‘breeched’ (dressed in breeches or trousers), crossing the threshold from childhood into manhood. Although when compared to more lavishly decorated Tudor portraits the young boy’s attire may seem quite understated, on the contrary black silk, which is almost certainly what we see here, was one of the most expensive fabrics available.

The dog has two purposes within the portrait; firstly, it hints at the wealth of the young boy’s family as only the rich could afford ‘toy’ dogs as pets, and secondly it is used to suggest scale, visually emphasising the youth of the child.

This style of portraiture remained very popular in England and was only displaced following the arrival of the Flemish baroque painter Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1642) in 1632, whose more dynamic, flowing compositions immediately caught the attention of the upper class patrons and set an entirely new course for British portraiture.
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