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The Days Are Long, but the Centuries Are Short

Being sheltered at home with my two small children, I am reminded of something a friend told me soon after we brought my oldest home from the hospital: the days are long, but the years are short. The days in seclusion are, indeed, especially long, but the years are also flying by. My daughter, now five, wants nothing more than to wear my shoes and put on my makeup. She longs to be tall enough to help herself to the snack cabinet and old enough to go bike riding by herself. Yet she still cries when she scrapes her knee, pleads for one more song at bedtime, and promises that she will always want to live at home. She is still so little, but she is getting big quickly.

I think about this poignant tension between childhood and the longing to grow up when I consider Judith Leyster’s Young Boy in Profile. Painted on a small round panel, it shows an alert boy in strict profile and fashionably attired, with an air of maturity and seriousness. At the same time, his tousled hair, full and rosy cheeks, and button nose all signal youth and innocence. And while his pose is stoic and his demeanor is quiet, Leyster also conveyed his lively youthfulness through her flickering brushwork.

This round portrait painting shows the head, face, and the top of the shoulders of a young, blond boy with pale, peachy skin and flushed cheeks, facing our right in profile against a tan background. Light comes from behind us and to our left, so the boy’s cheek, jawline, and ear are brightly lit as he looks straight ahead, to our left. He has long, dark eyelashes, a turned-up nose, and his full, coral-pink lips are closed. The cheek we see is deeply flushed along the curve, near the nose and mouth. His short, light brown hair is highlighted with gold strands where it catches the light. A long tendril falls down past his chin on the far side of his face. He wears a fitted jacket, perhaps of brown velvet, stitched along the seams in a lighter golden color. The narrow, white ruff encircling his neck above the jacket is pleated to create a pattern of figure-eights. The background is lighter to our right and deepens to a brownish olive green to our left. The portrait is somewhat loosely painted with visible brushstrokes.

Judith Leyster, Young Boy in Profile, c. 1630, oil on panel, Gift of Mrs. Thomas M. Evans, 2009.113.1

When I looked at Leyster’s Young Boy in the past, I primarily thought about it in terms of its relationship to the artist’s other works. Where else did she paint hair so evocatively, adding touches of brown above a head to create the sensation of wisps that have yet to settle? In what other works did she model cheeks in such vivid sweeps of rose? Now, though, after watching my daughter attend school remotely for months and struggle to understand why she can’t see her friends or grandparents, I wonder more about the boy. How old was he when Leyster painted him, and what was his childhood like? Did he also promise his mother he would stay home forever? Did she look at him and wonder how her little baby was growing up so fast?

Although most of these questions can never be answered, there are some clues in the painting that may hint at the boy’s life. The tress of hair worn long and to the left of his face, known as a lovelock, was a fashionable style among the nobility in several European courts. His clothing also resembles page uniforms worn at the Dutch court.

It seems Leyster’s boy could have been a court page, and, if so, he probably came from a noble family himself. Until about the age of seven, sons of the nobility were instructed in the home and thereafter sent to an estate or court for their next level of education.

If the boy was a page, it is tempting to imagine that his family commissioned Leyster to paint this portrait in commemoration of his “graduation” to this next phase. A few weeks ago, my daughter completed kindergarten, a (remote) graduation of her own. It was a mix of emotions. She was proud of her accomplishment and sad about moving on; full of love for her teachers and friends and anxious about what comes next. As I watched her feel it all, I thought: same, sweetie. On that day, my husband and I took pictures to memorialize the event, placing us in the continuum of centuries of parents who can’t believe how quickly their children are growing up—perhaps including those of Leyster’s Young Boy.