Matthew, son of John Perceval and his wife Mary, nee Boyd, was born into a convivial life centred around the Boyd family home at Murrumbeena. This stable existence was in marked contrast to John's unstable and deeply unhappy childhood.
In Perceval's Portrait of Matthew Perceval, the artist emphasises his son's vulnerability and innocence in this intimate and sensitive portrait. Children had formed one of the mainstays of Perceval's oeuvre since 1943. In these earlier works, the child was often presented in threatening situations, suggesting an autobiographical element in which the artist remembered his own childhood.
In Portrait of Matthew Perceval, threat was replaced by a "sympathy for the child, [demonstrating Perceval's] moral outrage at falsity and deprivation": a compassion was characteristic of the artist's early figurative works. Perceval would continue to develop these qualities in his later paintings, where this sympathy would be "mixed with humour and irony" in recognition of the subject's complexities
(M. Plant, John Perceval, Melbourne, 1978, p.22).