This beautifully preserved work is an exceptional example of the artist's portraiture. Van Bijlert is most famous as one of the small group of Utrecht artists who travelled to Italy in the first quarter of the seventeenth century and returned (mostly in the 1620s, Van Bijlert in 1624 being one of the last) profoundly influenced by the dramatic realism and chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, including Gerrit van Honthorst, Dirck van Baburen and Hendrick ter Brugghen. Almost all had been pupils of Abraham Bloemaert and many remained strongly influenced after their return by Honthorst, who established a considerable workshop - understood by many scholars as being closer to an academy - in Utrecht that numbered amongst its effective alumni artists such as Jan Gerritsz. van Bronchorst, Robert van Voerst, Gerard van Kijl and, according to Sandrart, Jan Both.
The present painting, as with much of Van Bijlert's portraiture, is illustrative of Honthorst's influence in Utrecht. After his return to the United Provinces, Van Bijlert continued to paint in the Caravaggist style through the rest of the 1620s, but in the 1630s he turned to the more classizing manner adopted by Honthorst, characterized by its clearer forms, more formal subject matter and lighter palette. To a considerable extent both artists were responding to a change in taste and patronage in the mid-1620s resulting from the spread of patronage emanating from the court of the Stadholder Frederik Hendrik in The Hague, itself to a great degree the result of the courtly taste introduced there by the exiled Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia.
The present painting recalls the style of portraiture favoured by those two courts in The Hague, illustrated by Honthorst's many portraits of the Houses of Orange-Nassau and Bohemia. Van Bijlert himself remained based in Utrecht following his return from Italy, but he and his clients - who included many of the most prominent citizens and nobles in utrecht and its environs - would have been well aware of developments in taste beyond the city's bounds. This is, however, arguably one of the most elegant - and charming - of all Van Bijlert's portraits, due to its quality of design and execution as much to its subject.
As noted by Paul Huys Janssen in his 1998 catalogue raisonné (loc. cit.), the subject has in the past been confused as representing a young girl, largely due to the custom of clothing male and female children identically in dresses until the boys were put in breeches at around 5 years old (the timing varied between countries, regions and periods). The staff, tight garment with a large collar and the chain all however show that the present sitter is a boy. His gesture proferring a biscuit to the begging dog is symbolic, referring to the child's own education and personal character (for which, see J.B. Bedaux, The Reality of symbols. Studies in the iconology of Netherlandish art 1400-1800, The Hague and Maarssen, 1990, pp. 109ff.). As further noted by Dr. Huys Janssen, a comparable iconography is found in the 1661 Portrait of a boy in the Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, by Van Bijlert's sometime pupil, Ludolf de Jongh.