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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Jan de Bray/Head of a Young Boy/c. 1650,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed April 20, 2024).

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Thu Apr 24 00:00:00 EDT 2014 Version

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Measuring just under 3-by-3 inches, this diminutive Head of a Young Boy engages the viewer through the sitter’s intense and serious gaze. Executed in free yet delicate brushstrokes, the work reveals the artist's mastery in rendering details within a restricted space. The smooth surface of the copper plate provided a perfect ground for the highly refined and precise technique of the painter, traditionally believed to be Jan de Bray. Customarily, such small portraits were placed in wide ebony frames that direct the viewer's eye to the image. The artist enhanced the illusionism of daylight streaming in from the left by painting a narrow shadow along the upper-left curved edge of the picture, thereby suggesting the presence of the frame.

The attribution of miniature portraits is often difficult to establish. This painting is similar, but not identical in style and technique, to miniatures De Bray executed early in his career. The boy, who is probably about six to eight years old, wears a doublet that can be dated to between 1650 and 1655. De Bray often made bust-length depictions of children as parts of Dutch family portrait series. Head of a Young Boy most likely belongs to one such series.


Head of a Young Boy engages the viewer through the directness of the young sitter’s intense and serious gaze. Light glistening off the boy’s flowing locks and eyes and off his lace collar, tassel, and white shirt activates the image and gives it a striking immediacy unexpected in such a small painting. The copper support, along with the portrait’s oval shape, smooth application of paint, and deep dark green background color, recalls early seventeenth-century Dutch, English, and French miniatures. The young boy’s head does not project a shadow; this stylistic feature is characteristic of such portraits and may relate to the origin of painted miniatures in goldsmith work.[1]

The attribution of miniatures is often difficult, and caution must be exercised when considering the authorship of this work, which has traditionally been identified as a painting by Jan de Bray.[2] The boy, whose identity is unknown, seems to be about six to eight years old.[3] The style of his neatly coiffed shoulder-length hair, lace collar, and fashionable brown doublet, which has been left unbuttoned in its lower part to leave the shirt exposed, can be dated between 1650 and 1655.[4] De Bray did make a number of similar bust-length portraits of young boys during the 1650s and 1660s that are equally sympathetic and direct in their characterization of the sitter, and it is largely for this reason that this painting has been attributed to him.[5] None of these other portraits, however, is as small or refined as this one; furthermore, whereas in this painting the shoulders seem too small to support the size of the boy’s head, De Bray’s figures usually tend to have a greater sense of three-dimensionality [fig. 1].  De Bray often made bust-length depictions of young boys as elements within family portrait series, and regardless of whether this work was painted by him, it too may originally have been part of a series of images of children from a Dutch family.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


(Rafael Valls Limited, London); purchased 1960s by Maida and George Abrams, Newton, Massachusetts; gift 1995 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Adriaen Brouwer: Youth Making a Face, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1995-1996, not in brochure.
A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, not in catalogue.
Small Northern European Portraits from The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, brochure checklist no. 36.

Technical Summary

The support is an oval copper panel. Thinly painted areas of the background reveal a tan priming layer. The paint was applied with a tight, fine, smoothly blended brushstroke, in a variety of techniques ranging from opaque paint in the face to glazes in the dark clothes and green background. Slight impasto can be found throughout the background and in the highlights of the clothing. Infrared reflectography at 1.5 to 1.8 microns[1] revealed that the hair on the proper right side originally lay behind the boy’s collar instead of partially covering it, and it also showed a few lines of underdrawing in the chest and hair.

The copper panel is in plane and the paint is in good condition. There is inpainting in the highlighted side of the collar. The painting was partially cleaned leaving remnants of an old varnish beneath the modern, clear, even varnish. It has not undergone treatment at the National Gallery of Art.


[1] Infrared reflectography was performed using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera fitted with an H astronomy filter.


Spicer, Joaneath, and Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. Small Northern European Portraits from the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. Exh. brochure, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000: no. 36.

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