Shape or Body? The Art Theoretical Reflections on Boy with a Rose Joana Vitkutė
Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis
Keywords:Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, child portraiture, portrait masks, post-mortem portraits, Samogitian museum “Alka”, Boy with a Rose
As we look into the classical portraits of the old, we can never be certain of the true identities of the depicted figures. Not only was the portrait meant to represent client’s social status, it often had to act as a substitute—i.e., it had to be a time-defying medium that offered the future generations a particular form of self-representation. Such pictorial rep- resentations that were extending the no longer living sujects into the future were nothing short of masks determined by their social environments and constructed with the help of the artist’s brush.
Back then, these masks were also worn by the minors. “Boy with a Rose” depicts an unidentified infant nobleman of the Grand Dutchy of Lithua- nia, and is one such example. Held in the collection of the Samogitian Museum “Alka” and acquired from the Plateliai estate archives, the portrait by an unknown painter dates back to the second half of the 18th century. The clothing of the noble child combines both Western and local elements; Carabella, a nobleman’s sword hanging from the waist, is a distinct example of the latter and is part of the social mask imposed on the boy. Although the specific purpose of “Boy with a Rose” remains unclear, it appears that, apart from being merely representational, the portrait might have functioned as a memorial portrait for the family. This is supported by the absence of inscriptions, which implied that the family were able to identify the child through the main element of a portrait—namely, boy’s face. In this context, “Boy with a Rose” leaves us pondering whether the portrait was made while the boy was still alive.
In order for the portrait to subtly convey the fragility and temporary nature of life, it refers to death indirectly—through the attributes that surround the subject. A similar approach was used for the objects and the colour palette of the “Boy with a Rose”. The rose itself also plays an important role. It is Rosa x centifolia, a once very popular type in the gardens of Lithuanian mansions. The fact that the boy’s image is anatomically distorted implies that the boy was either ill or dead—i.e., absent during the session of painting—and the artist had to either work from memory or follow the client’s instructions. The impression that “Boy with a Rose” is a post-mortem interpretation intensifies when the work is compared with other examples of post-mortem portraits of infants from the same period. It is therefore likely that “Boy with a Rose” represents its subject’s intended role in society and immortalises his previously unknown face in a painterly medium. In other words, the boy is thus provided with two masks—a social one and a post-mortem representation.