This engaging portrait of a dashingly-attired young boy, who holds the viewer’s gaze with the confidence and composure of a fully-grown adult, is the only recorded portrait of a child by the artist, and possibly the only example of an aristocratic portrait dating from van Cleve’s time at the French court. It demonstrates his remarkable ability to capture the likeness of his sitters and convey status in his portraits.
Dubbed the ‘Leonardo of the North’ in a recent exhibition (Aachen, Suermondt- Ludwig-Museum, Leonardo des Nordens: Joos van Cleve, March-June 2011), Joos van Cleve was, along with Jan Gossaert and Bernard van Orley, the foremost Northern painter of his day. Active in the thriving city of Antwerp where he is first documented in 1511, he developed a distinctive and highly successful style, combining technical accomplishment in oil, inherited from the early-Netherlandish painting tradition, with Italian motifs inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, as well as a rich palette indebted to Northern Italian, especially Venetian models. It is his prowess as a ‘colourist’ that is praised especially in the accounts of his life by the great early biographers Lodovico Guicciardini (1567), Giorgio Vasari (1568) and Karel van Mander (1604). These writers also celebrated Joos’ gifts as a portraitist, a talent which attracted the prestigious patronage of King Francis I, who around 1529 called him to his thriving court in France. Joos’ executed portraits of the king and his wife Eleanor of Austria (respectively, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Hampton Court, Royal Collection), but somewhat surprisingly no identified portraits of French noblemen are documented from this period. Joos also painted a portrait of King Henry VIII of England (London, Royal Collection); although it is no known if he painted him from life, when Henry VIII met the French king at Calais, or if he was working from pre-existing depictions of the king (K. Heard, L. Whitaker (eds.), The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, exhibition catalogue, London, 2013, p. 65).
Children seldom appear on their own in portraits of the early-fifteen hundreds; the genre fourished in the following century (on this development, see J.B. Bedaux, R. Ekkart (eds.), Pride and Joy: Childrens’ Portraits in the Netherlands, 1500-1700, Ghent, Amsterdam, 2000). This portrait, which is dated by John Hand on stylistic grounds to circa 1525 (J. Hand, op. cit., 2004, p. 145), is thus a genuine rarity. Of fine quality, it compares favourably with other notable examples of Renaissance child portraiture, for instance Jan van Scorel’s Portrait of a Young Scholar, of 1531 (fig. 1; Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen), the overall composition and costume of which are similar to this picture.
The young sitter’s identity remains a mystery. The few children portrayed during this period largely belonged to the highest echelons of society - royalty or aristocracy. The sitter is shown wearing a fur-lined crimson silk jerkin, fastened to the side and tied at the waist with a black belt, to which an ornate leather pouch decorated with golden threads and tassels is attached, and a richly-feathered black beret. The style of the costume, which is rather unusual, has so far not been identified with any specific geographical region, making it difficult to ascertain the sitter’s country of origin. More specific is the weapon he displays as a sign of his youthful virility - an ivory gold-damascened ‘ear’ dagger (thus called because of the ‘ears’ that project at an angle from either side of the top of the grip in place of a pommel), which is characteristic of the work of a Spanish swordsmith called Diego de Çaias, who was active at the court of France, in the household of Francis I’s young sons, from 1532 to 1545, after which he is documented in England in the service of Henry VIII and later Edward VI.
The sitter has been identified previously with both Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s elder brother, and Prince Edward VI, largely due to the portrait’s early English provenance; however, these suggestions can be discounted on comparison with other depictions of these sitters. Furthermore, while lavish, the boy’s attire lacks the sumptuousness of regal dress of the period. He must instead have been a member of the high aristocracy. Given Joos van Cleve’s activity at the court of France at the same moment as Diego de Çaias, it is tantalising to speculate that the sitter is a young French aristocrat, which would make it the only surviving portrait documenting Joos’s activity in France other than the portraits of the king and queen. Yet with the lack of any substantial evidence, this must remain speculation.
The commission may have been motivated by the wish to commemorate an important event such as a betrothal, as the daisy held by the sitter seems to suggest, although carnations are more commonly used in this context. The painting could also have been intended to be sent to a prospective spouse, a frequent occurrence during important marriage negotiations, for instance with Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of Isabella of Portugal painted to secure her match with the Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Anne of Cleves executed prior to her ill-fated marriage to Henry VIII.
This picture was first documented in 1864 in the collection of George Rushout-Bowles, 3rd Lord Northwick, who inherited Northwick Park and his title from his uncle John Rushout, 2nd Lord Northwick in 1859. The latter was a noted collector described by Tancred Borenius as ‘of very high intelligence and discrimination...he was able to avail himself of an ample fortune to buy the finest specimens of the Fine arts which came into the market.’ His collection included such treasures as Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man (then attributed to Masaccio), Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Annibale Carracci’s Domine Quo Vadis (all London, National Gallery). When he died intestate, the collection was offered for sale at auction and his heir, George Rushout- Bowles, bought back a small but important portion of the collection. Although this portrait does not appear in the auction, it could have been part of John Rushout’s collection and passed on to his nephew. It may also have been acquired by the latter independently, prior to 1864. In 1912, Captain E.G. Spencer-Churchill inherited Northwick Park and the remains of the collection from his maternal grandmother, the widow of the 3rd Lord Northwick, and over the subsequent fifty years added a further 200 paintings, which he christened the ‘Northwick Rescues’. In his will he stipulated that his collection should be sold in its entirety, which was subsequently honoured in a series of sales in these Rooms in 1965, which realised over £2,000,000