Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


ATTRIBUTED TO JAN DE VOS IV (Leiden circa 1619/20 – Leiden 1663)

A Young Boy with a Billy Goat

oil on canvas

46 ¼ x 36 ½ inches          (117.4 x 92.7 cm.)


Mr. and Mrs. Francis George Seymour Holbrooke, Bladon Castle, Burton-on-Trent

Estate of Mrs. Elizabeth Holbrooke, Christie’s, London, February 17, 1939, lot 156 (as by D. Vos) where purchased by


Newhouse Galleries, New York, by 1980 (as by Cornelis de Vos), from whom purchased by

Private Collection, West Coast, United States, February, 1980 until 2013


On a hilltop a young boy and a billy goat stand before a soaring rock formation. Although his identity is unknown, his outfit as well as the setting denotes wealth and status. At first glance it might be surprising to refer to the sitter as a boy, but both boys and girls at this age wore skirts and aprons and there does not seem to be a set rule as to when it was deemed appropriate to transfer young boys into breeches, although the average age appears to have been about seven.[1] More conclusive for the determination of the sitter’s gender are the inclusion of the bridled goat and leather whip of interwoven black, red and white patches, so beautifully rendered that it creates a trompe l’oeil. Goat carts, often made to resemble miniature gilded chariots fit for Arcadian gods, were given to children of wealthy landowners. Pulled along by a pet goat, such rides would have been great fun for a young child.[2] Traditionally in these portraits objects that were indicative of the sitter’s gender as well as part of their lives were included. Pets were routinely painted,[3] and this must be the case judging by the loving gaze and beribboned harness of the goat, but attributes were also selected for their symbolic value.[4] During this period, young boys were often depicted restraining goats, animals that had long been associated with lust and wantonness. The bridle and whip were symbolic of the child having these temptations under control.[5] The ringing of bells, such as those attached to the goat’s harness, was believed to ward off the devil.[6] It was generally felt that passions needed to be held in check from an early age, so as not to become a guiding force later in life. Girls were regarded as naturally more modest.[7]

The thistles in the lower left foreground and the ivy hanging down from the rock formation in the midground can be regarded as emblematic of unrestricted nature. Thistles, as well as the single daisy, are weeds and ivy tends to overtake and destroy other plants.[8] The honeysuckle hanging above the goat’s head is meant to recall medieval gardens of love.[9] These plants are all depicted on the dark side of the painting. In contrast are the two young upright trees in the sun filled valley on the right side of the canvas. Derived from the teachings of Plutarch, the trees are emblematic of a proper upbringing through guidance and training. Claes Bruin summarized this concept in De lustplaats Soelen, “That the pruning of the vineyard and of all trees is a symbol of children’s discipline requires no other evidence than nature itself; for without that necessary work, the gardener would wait in vain for fruit just as parents who neglect this necessary duty shall rarely observe the fruits of piety and virtue in their children, but, on the contrary, shall find instead the putrid grapes of the basest needs.”[10] Thus within the composition light and shade have also been employed to mark the child’s proper path.

Costumed for posterity and a vision of costly splendor, the young boy wears a white linen apron that extends from his chest to the floor, with two overlapping layers hanging from the waist over a black dress. The visible folds in the apron mark it as freshly laundered and as having been just removed from a cupboard, signifying a well-run household. The bent corner of the apron in the lower right echoes the raised hoof of the goat, adding a sense of movement to the composition. His split rectangular collar is trimmed with exquisite lace featuring a floral pattern that was also used in his cuffs, cap and undercap, and are tokens of prosperity as lace at this point was often more costly than woven fabrics or jewelry.[11] His sleeves are festooned with loops of red ribbons held in place by gold buttons. Red ribbons tie his cuffs, are threaded through the gold chain on his shoulder and adorn his golden locks. At this time both boys and girls commonly wore bows in their hair. A heavy gold chain runs across his chest, an obvious emblem of wealth. It was also primarily boys who were painted with gold chains worn angled across their chests.[12] A leading string dangles from his left shoulder. Leading strings were routinely attached to the upper garments of young children so an adult could support a child when learning to walk. Often afterwards these bands remained as a decoration.[13] Bright red shoes peep out from beneath the boy’s apron, their high gloss further evidence of good housekeeping. On his left pinky is a gold ring with a square-cut orange gemstone. Children under the age of twelve tended to be painted in colorful outfits.[14] As intended, the striking combination of black, white and red reinforced by the repeating pattern of the whip serve to rivet the viewer’s eye.

The setting functions as a further revelation about the family’s status. Painted visions of unpopulated rolling vistas coincided with the purchasing of country estates by wealthy townsmen during a period of increasing prosperity. By 1650 the Netherlands was the richest country in the world. With the acquisition of an estate, an elevation in social status was assured. Even those who could not afford to purchase an estate sought to be painted in such a manner for the same reason—“a tangible expression of power and wealth.”[15] Dressed in a princely manner, perched on a peak overlooking enviable terrain, our young sitter embodies the hopes, dreams and aspirations all families cherish for their children.

The Leiden artist Jan de Vos IV worked mainly as a portrait painter. Today less than ten portraits can be securely attributed to the artist. Recorded examples of his signature correspond to the manner in which our painting is signed. On this basis, as well as stylistic affinities with the known works, a conclusion can be made that the painting is in all probability by Jan de Vos IV. Unfortunately no other children’s portraits are known by the artist, as all existing works portray middle age or elderly sitters, making conclusive comparisons difficult. Very little documentation exists on De Vos’s professional training. In 1646 he married Adriana van de Velde with whom he had eight children,[16] and perhaps accounts for the artist’s obvious empathy for the young boy in this portrait. In 1648 he joined the Leiden painter’s guild. In 1651 he was the guild’s hoofdman (headman), in 1652 its Dean, and from 1655-1657 and 1662 hoofdman again. At the time of his wife’s death in 1669 an inventory was done which recorded more than 250 paintings among the family’s assets.[17] Intriguingly, this provides the hope for the emergence of further works from a painter active and obviously well respected in Leiden.

We would like to thank Rudolf E.O. Ekkart and Fred G. Meijer of the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, The Hague for suggesting the attribution to Jan de Vos IV.



[1] Saskia Kuus, “Skirts for Girls and Boys” in Pride and Joy, Children’s Portraits in the Netherlands 1500-1700, exhibition catalogue, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, October 7-December 31, 2000, p. 81.

[2] Donna R. Barnes & Peter G. Rose, Childhood Pleasures, Dutch Children in the Seventeenth Century, Syracuse University Press, New York, 2012, pp. 2, 98.

[3] Annemarieke Willemsen, “Images of Toys, The Culture of Play in the Netherlands around 1600,” in Pride and Joy, op. cit., pp. 62, 64, 71.

[4] Ibid, p. 62.

[5] Jan Baptist Bedaux, The Reality of Symbols, Gary Schwartz, SDU Publishing, The Hague, 1990, p. 141.

[6] William H. Wilson, “Adriaen van der Linde” in Dutch Seventeenth Century Portraiture, The Golden Age, exhibition catalogue, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida, December 4, 1980-Febraury 8, 1981, unpaginated.

[7] Jan Baptist Bedaux, op. cit., 1990, p. 146.

[8] Jan Baptist Bedaux, “Jan Albertsz Rotius, Four-Year-Old Boy with Goat” in Pride and Joy, op. cit., p. 220.

[9] Peter C. Sutton, “Painting in the Age of Rubens” in The Age of Rubens, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, September 22, 1993-January 2, 1994 and traveling, p. 24.

[10] Jan Baptist Bedaux, “Discipline Bears Fruit,” in Pride and Joy, op. cit., pp. 20-21.

[11] Santina M. Levey and Patricia Wardle, The Finishing Touch, Frederiksborg Museum, Denmark, 1994, p. 4.

[12] Saskia Kuus, “Skirts for Girls and Boys,” in Pride and Joy, op. cit., p. 80.

[13] Saskia Kuus, “Leading Strings and Protective Caps, Children’s Costumes in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in Pride and Joy, op. cit., p. 77.

[14] Katlijne Van der Stighelen, “Justus van Egmont,” in Pride and Joy, op. cit., p. 250.

[15] Alison McNeil Kettering, The Dutch Arcadia, Pastoral Art and its Audience in the Golden Age, Totowa, New Jersey, 1983, pp. 10-11, 70-71.

[16] C. Willemijn Fock & R.E.O. Ekkart, “Johannes de Vos, Verwarring Rond Vier Leidse Schilder,” in Jaarboekje voor geschiedenis en oudheidkunde van Leiden en omstreken, no. 78, 1986, p. 67.

[17] Ibid.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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