This portrait is remarkable, mainly because Backer has painted it with a very limited palette of mostly shades of grey. He used a little red paint only for the cheeks and lips. Another remarkable feature is that the boy is looking down at us, which was not usually the case in children’s portraits.
The anonymous boy is wearing the clothes of an adult man. This was normal in those days for boys from the age of seven. He has draped his cloak over his shoulder, like an elegant gentleman.
In the seventeenth century children were considered small adults. This boy wearing a smart grey suit was portrayed by Jacob Backer. The painting exudes a distinguished yet friendly aura. Backer laid in the entire composition in shades of grey and brown, causing the snowy white ruff and rosy face of the boy to stand out. The lips are accentuated with dabs of red, giving him the appearance of blooming health. His short hair looks soft and shiny. The boy is clearly well groomed, as his expensive attire also attests to. His outfit differs entirely from what is nowadays considered to be children’s clothing. Apparently, whether the boy could move easily and play in it was of no consequence.
Along with the clothing yet another aspect contributes to our sense of the boy’s maturity. The angle is lower than normal in likenesses of children: usually they were portrayed frontally or from slightly above, as though the beholder looks down on them. A lower vantage point was used only for adults, whereby the viewer looks up at the sitter, as it were. This is also the case in this oval painting - Backer portrayed the child as an adult.
Backer was born in Harlingen, but lived in Amsterdam from the age of three. He trained in Leeuwarden with the painter Lambert Jacobsz. In 1634, the year when this portrait was painted, he had moved back to Amsterdam. Accordingly, the boy in grey will have been a member of a well-to-do Amsterdam family. Unfortunately, we do not know which family. This certainly does not make the portrait less appealing. Even though his identity is not known, this serious yet vital boy immediately appeals to the viewer.
(this is a reworked version of a text published in: L. van der Vinde, Children in the Mauritshuis, The Hague 2007, pp. 46-47)
Jacob Adriaensz Backer (Harlingen 1608 - 1651 Amsterdam)
Portrait of a Boy in Grey
Materiale e dettagli tecnici
94.2 x 70.8 cm
Signed and dated
at right, above centre: I: De backer / 1634.
Jonkheer Johan Steengracht van Oostkapelle and heirs, The Hague, before 1846-1913; gift of Mrs. Cornelia Adriana Rose-Molewater, through the Rembrandt Association, The Hague, 1914
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