This charming portrait of a child is an important testament to the exquisite portraiture of sixteenth-century Flanders. The costume is skillfully rendered, with particular attention to the delicate lace and gold embroidery. The understanding of the folds and creases of the dress reveal the deft hand of a gifted artist, and points to an important commission from a wealthy family. Furthermore, the child wears a jewel-encrusted cross suspended from an expensive gold chain. This cross functioned both as a precious object and as a religious amulet endowed with protective qualities; it should be noted that child mortality rates were high in this period and many children did not reach adulthood. This child also holds a small bird in his other hand, a great tit, which is tethered with a string. While a goldfinch often appears in depictions of the Christ child, alluding to His forthcoming passion, children of the upper classes also frequently kept birds as toys.
Up until the age of about five, both sexes were clothed in skirts. It is uncertain when the boys were breeched, but varying accounts suggest this occurred between the ages of four-and-a-half to seven (Pride and Joy. Children's portraits in the Netherlands, 1500-1700, exhibition catalogue, eds. J.B. Bedaux and R. Ekkart, Amsterdam, 2000, pp. 78-81). Fine clothes like those worn by this child were by no means intended for everyday use. With so few surviving child portraits from the sixteenth century, adult costume books provide a useful overview of the fashion of the time. In Abraham de Bruyn's Omnium pene Europae, Asiae, Aphricae atque Americae gentium habitus, first published in 1577 and slightly postdating this picture, there are some remarkably similar dresses. The plates Women of Frankfurt and Women of the Low Countries (A. de Bruyn, pls. 4 and 21) illustrate women incomparable attire, with similar shoulder pads and vertical stripes. While aprons commonly appear in German portraiture, but not in Dutch or Flemish women's costumes, children from all countries are frequently shown in aprons. It is likely that our panel depicts a sitter from Flanders.
Catharina van Hemessen was the first female Flemish painter by whom a signed and dated painting survives (1548; Basel, Kunstmusem). Born in Antwerp, she was probably trained by her father Jan Sanders van Hemessen who nurtured her talent. Both Vasari and Guicciardini mention her during her own lifetime alongside Lavinia Teerlinc and Maria de Bessemers. Catharina's most important patron was Queen Mary of Hungary, widow of Louis II and sister of Emperor Charles V, who governed the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands from 1531. In Descrittione (1567), Guicciardini mentions that Queen Mary called Catharina 'per la loro rara virtu' to Spain in 1556, and after her death in 1558, Catharina was provided with a fixed life annuity, enabling her to return to Antwerp where she is recorded again in 1561. In contrast with her father's monumental, highly-mannered style, Catharina painted fairly small panels in a restrained, tasteful idiom. Her delicate figures possess a graceful charm and she had a sensitivity to stylish costumes and accessories, which can be seen in Portrait of a Woman (Brussels, Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts) and even more so in Portrait of a Woman (Baltimore, The Baltimore Museum of Art).