The original composition of this charming study of a young child is in the Wallace Collection, London (P419). The Waddesdon canvas was probably painted by the studio of Greuze after a sketch or model by the artist. The dog featured in the Wallace painting has been painted out, and the ball in the boy's right hand has been replaced by a top.
The dog was originally part of the composition of the Waddesdon painting. Its shadow remains, along with traces of the hair beneath the top on the left and the dog's tongue on the right of the boy's body. It was probably made very soon after the Wallace painting was made around 1760. The original composition was also engraved in reverse in 1779 by C. G. Schultz. There are at least five other known copies of the Wallace painting, two of which have been identified as portraits of Edouard Froment de Castille, but it is more likely that Greuze's painting was simply of a charming child. The painting was attributed to François Drouais (1727-1775) when it was purchased by Alice de Rothschild.
The Wallace Collection painting may have been exhibited in the 1757 Salon under the title Le matelot napolitain (The Neapolitain Matelot) and was described in a sale of 1795 as a child ‘dressed in the costume of a Matelot’. A matelot was a sailor responsible for manoeuvring the ship, under the command of the Pilot officer and the Captain. The suggestion the boy is in fancy dress lends a theatricality to this image of his playtime, far from the concerns of adult-life. The absence of the dog in the Waddesdon painting allows a greater appreciation of the luxurious silks of his play-clothes. It is easy to see how the aristocratic family of the Barons de Castille thought that the painting was a portrait of their ancestor.
Jean-Baptiste Greuze was highly successful with his scenes of everyday life. He made popular studies of children, often accompanied by pets; sentimental genre paintings; scenes of domestic drama and moralistic depictions of family life reflecting the social commentary of his day. He wanted to be received by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture as a history painter, but in 1769 he was only received as a genre painter, considered to be less worthy as subject matter.
Phillippa Plock, 2011
Anita Brookner, French Pictures at Waddesdon, The Burlington Magazine, 101, 1959, 271-273; pp. 271-272
Ellis Waterhouse, Anthony Blunt; Paintings: The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor; Fribourg; Office du Livre, The National Trust; 1967; p. 238, cat. no. 108
John Ingamells; The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures; 4 vols; London; The Trustees of the Wallace Collection (London); 1985-1989; vol. 3, pp. 194-195