Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Boy with a Gun 1690s

Michael Dahl (1659-1743)

Portrait of a Boy with a Gun, Michael Dahl
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 inches, 127 x 101.6cm
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This painting represents one of Dahl’s most inspired portraits, and reveals why, at his best, he was capable of outshining such contemporaries as Kneller, Richardson, and Seeman. In terms of draughtmanship, subject and pose this picture demonstrates a remarkable liveliness not often seen portraits of the period, and is reminiscent of Dahl masterpieces such as his self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Dahl’s elegant composition allows the boy, with his gun, to fill the canvas in both directions, while the boy’s purposeful stride imparts movement across the picture. Too often, artists of the period sought to inject movement and colour into portraits by using a bright backdrop against a static sitter. In this example, however, Dahl does just the opposite, and in doing so looks forward to the Grand Manner of Reynolds and later generations.

Dahl has also combined the sharp precision of his original Scandinavian training, as seen in the realist depiction of the hands and gun, with a later English style of characterisation and colour, particularly in the vibrant and fluid background. The sketchiness of the boy’s dress and surroundings help emphasise the relaxed nature of what is an unashamedly youthful portrait. As in all successful portraits in the genre, the painter must be able to demonstrate, as he does here, a genuine sympathy with the character of children, and to portray them as more than miniature adults. As such, this must rank amongst the most engaging child portraits of the period, and is a rare example of a boy deliberately depicted as an adventurous child, and not a prematurely aged young man. He is shown without either the stiff formality of period fashion, or the weighty constraints of titular props and symbolized wealth. The image is instead an endearingly frank and honest depiction of aristocratic childhood in the seventeenth century.
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