A Boy in Hunter's Dress

Jacques Vaillant, Portrait of a Boy as a Hunter, Holding a Boar Spear, with his Greyhound. Lot 33. Auction Jan 31.

NEW YORK, NY -- Dutch painters pioneered the art of children's portraiture, starting in the late sixteenth century and continuing into the seventeenth. In the Netherlands, these images followed certain conventions. Most showed the entire figure, since it was customary for children's portraits to be the same size as those of their parents and other adults, who were generally depicted at half-length. Portrayals of middle-class youngsters presented the sitters dressed in their best, with their toys, pets and familiar objects from their daily lives — likenesses so familiar and accessible that these adorable boys and girls seem to be standing in rooms in their homes.

Portraits of royal and noble heirs were more formal and dynastic in character, sometimes emblazoned with inscriptions or coats of arms and other family emblems. These images often portrayed their subjects engaged in childhood versions of grown-up aristocratic behavior: wearing lavish costumes that mimicked courtly regalia, riding toy horses, and carrying miniature arms or batons of command. Some portraits of the younger members of rich bourgeois families include these same features, as a way of implying connections — or aspirations — to nobility.

Jacques Vaillant (1643-1691), a peripatetic Dutch artist of the seventeenth century, worked in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Austria during the course of his thirty-year career. Somewhere on his travels, he painted an engaging portrait of a boy as a hunter to be offered by Doyle on January 31, 2018 (Lot 33). Here we see all the characteristic features of Dutch upper-class children’s portraiture of the period: the full-length figure; the elegant, rather fanciful costume; and the subtle references to the education and refinement of the boy’s family. This boy is portrayed as an aristocrat, or at least as the scion of a family of considerable wealth. His costume is uncommonly lavish: a silk tunic and elaborate Roman-style sandals liberally ornamented with pearls. He carries a spear used for boar hunting, and is shown with a greyhound, in reference to a category of hunting that was then known as the “higher chase” — the pursuit of stag or wild boar rather than smaller, less dangerous game — which was restricted by custom, and sometimes by law, to the nobility. Boar hunting in particular was so hazardous that it was thought of as a preparation for warfare.

The extensive vista in the background almost certainly represents the land held by the boy’s family; and his Roman-style sandals, along with the sculptural figure to his left, suggest that he is the descendant of an ancient lineage. These references to Antiquity also signal the boy's education, which would have included the study of Latin and Greek, a knowledge of ancient authors and a familiarity with such Greek mythological adventures as the Calydonian Boar Hunt. As with many other portraits of children from highly placed families, this work also gives an intimation of the boy’s eventual position in life. His proud stance and the effortless manner in which he seems to command the greyhound suggests the role of leadership he will assume in adulthood. As Jan Baptist Bedaux has noted, the well-behaved dog was also a metaphor for the properly disciplined upbringing of the boy himself (Pride and Joy: Children’s Portraits in the Netherlands 1500-1700, Haarlem, 2000, p. 19).

How old is this boy? He appears to be roughly seven or eight years of age. The heirs of great families were expected to assume their hereditary station quickly. The spear that he carries with such confidence is not a toy, but a real implement of the chase. This is a man in the making, one who may one day command an army.


Old Master Paintings & Drawings

Auction January 31, 2018 at 10am
Exhibition January 27 - 29

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