This charming picture by Jacob van Oost depicts a young girl whose open gaze and unadorned setting creates a striking immediacy. Formerly assigned to Jan de Bray, this work was attributed in 1988 by Albert Blankert to Jacob van Oost the Younger and later to his father, Jacob van Oost the Elder (Boston, op. cit., p. 190). Born into the rich artistic tradition of his native city of Bruges, Van Oost was trained by his elder brother, Frans, before joining the city's Guild of Saint Luke in 1619, an organization he later led. In the 1620s, Van Oost traveled to Italy, where he encountered the work of artists such as Correggio and Caravaggio. As his career progressed, Van Oost increasingly incorporated into his paintings the vivid color and opulence of the pre-eminent Flemish masters in Antwerp, Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony van Dyck. Deftly harnessing the most esteemed artistic developments of his age, Van Oost became well-known for his altarpieces, particularly those with Counter-Reformation themes for local churches in Bruges, as well as his sensitive portraits, exemplified by the present work.
Van Oost's pictures of children count among the most remarkable in his oeuvre and contribute to the innovations in child imagery that appeared in this period, such as Rembrandt's Portrait of the artist's son, Titus (Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena) and Frans Hals' Laughing boy (Mauritshuis, The Hague). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, artists began depicting children less as miniaturized adults, and instead sought to capture youthful features studied from life, such as the rosy cheeks, expansive forehead and large eyes seen in this portrait. In Bruges, Van Oost capitalized on this celebration of childhood, creating numerous pictures of young people. As paintings from the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, and the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, demonstrate, Van Oost seamlessly incorporated carefully studied images of children into genre and religious scenes.
Although the romantic costume and simple composition of this work suggests it may be a study of a head, or tronie, in fact Van Oost often painted portraits in this fashion. Portraits of children were growing in popularity during this period in the region, as parents used them as a means to express pride in their offspring. With its stark background and varied textures, this painting bears a particular resemblance to Van Oost's Portrait of a boy, aged eleven in the National Gallery, London (fig. 1). As the sitter in the London picture is thought to be Van Oost's son, the intimacy of the present portrait suggests that it too depicts a young girl the artist knew well, as he captured in her so skillfully the innocence and naturalness of youth.