This six-year-old’s appearance is anything but childlike. He wears a grown man’s clothing and looks out at us with a solemn gaze. But above all it is the fact that he is looking down at us from above that makes him seem older than his years. This lends him a heroic air rather at odds with his youth.
The boy’s identity is unknown. His parents probably came from Haarlem, like the painter Jan de Bray. Jan de Bray belonged to a famous family of Haarlem painters and lived and worked in his home town for most of his life.
Despite his young age - according to the inscription he is only six years old - this boy looks out at us gravely, somewhat sadly even, with big blue eyes. That his gaze strikes the modern beholder as ever so earnest must have to do with our tendency to portray or photograph children laughing or smiling. The closed mouth, corners turned slightly downward, runs contrary to that notion. However, in a time when laughter was considered inappropriate for a portrait, the boy’s facial expression would not have been perceived as sad, but rather as fitting and polite.
This child cannot be identified. We do know that he was six years old in 1654, the year when he sat for Jan de Bray. Furthermore, he may well have come from Haarlem, given that De Bray was active there. As this touching likeness of a child makes clear, in addition to being a history painter, De Bray was also a gifted portraitist. The subtle illumination makes the boy’s head stand out from the brownish-grey background. With apparent ease, the painter suggested the reflecting sheen of the golden blond hair with just a few light yellow strokes.
The boy’s clothing seems sober, but because of the luxurious black fabric it is, in fact, an elegant costume. The plain white collar is fastened with little cords ending in woolly tassels. He holds a broad-brimmed, black hat in his left hand, as though he had just courteously doffed it. The dark hat is decorated with colourful ribbons, giving the ensemble a playful, seemingly more childlike accent. Nevertheless, these bright ribbons were not specifically intended for children. Adult men could also elect to embellish their hats with ribbons, gemstones or feathers. In fact, the six-year-old boy is thus garbed as a full-grown man, a role for which he had to prepare himself at a young age.
(this is a reworked version of a text published in: L. van der Vinde, Children in the Mauritshuis, The Hague 2007, pp. 56-57)
Jan de Bray (Haarlem c. 1627 - 1697 Haarlem)
Portrait of a Boy, Aged Six
On view in
Material and technical details
47 x 59.5 cm
Dated and signed
rechts van het midden: 1654 / Oud [sporen van een 't'] 6 ja / JDBray JDB ineen
F. Rothmann Gallery, Berlin; Anton F. Philips, Eindhoven; purchased, 1932