Several versions and numerous copies exist of Greuze's Little Mathematician, best known from the version in the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, which is presumed to have come from the collection of Duclos-Dufresnoy, Greuze's notary and one of his most important patrons.
The present painting is probably a replica of the Montpellier picture, only slightly later in date, and of very high quality. Edgar Munhall, who has examined the painting, believes it to be an autograph work by Greuze, made in the 1780s, when the artist's precarious finances compelled him to produce numerous bust-length genre paintings with a gently moralizing tone. These paintings were a novel synthesis of genre painting and portraiture -- the twin fields in which Greuze had established himself as a master -- and would provide Greuze with income until the Revolution. The thick application of paint in the boy's blouse and the delicate transluscent glazes of pigment in his flesh are characteristic of Greuze's works in this period, and his particular gift -- a peerless ability to exploit the empathetic power of expression -- is well displayed in The Little Mathematician.
Another version of the composition, from the estate of Mr. and Mrs. Kay Kimbell, was sold at Sotheby's, New York, June 9, 1983, lot 51 ($24,200).