This fresh, resolutely frank oil portrait is distinguished by its clarity, charm and lack of sentimentality. Without a trace of adult condescention, Le Brun's portrait of a young boy captures the sitter's intelligence and mischeveousness with a casual mastery and insight rarely equalled in the seventeenth century, even by Rubens.
Nothing is known about the child, and little was known of the portrait before its rediscovery in the mid-1980s. Even were it not signed and dated 1650, there could have been no doubt as to its authorship. The incisive characterization, thinly painted but highly finished face, naturalistic but sketchy rendering of the hair, and summary treatment of the collar all declare it a work by the master. Le Brun here adopted an aesthetic he established in his finest pastel portraits, notably the three-quarter profile Portrait d'Homme in the Louvre (see J. Thuillier and J. Montague, Exposition Charles Le Brun, Versailles, 1963, no. 181). The present portrait of a boy is most readily comparable to the remarkable oil, the Portrait de Turenne at Versailles (op. cit., no. 28). Indeed, Turenne is presented against the same toned-in background, with a strongly individualized face, broadly rendered hair, and summary indication of clothing as is found in the present likeness.
While the Portrait de Turenne was a study from life made to be transferred to the large tapestry cartoon L'Entrevue de l'Ile des Faisans (one of Le Brun's L'Histoire du roi suite), our boy relates to no identified finished painting or known tapestry. It seems possible that it was never intended as such a study, but is instead an informal portrait of a family member or the child of an intimate. That it is signed and dated is highly unusual for Le Brun and supports the suggestion that the artist considered it a finished, self-sustained work.