Portrait of a Boy, 1872

Oil on canvas, 22
X 18" (55.88 x 45.72 cm.)
Museum purchase, 920-0-104

Between 1870 and 1879, Frank Duveneck distinguished himself at home and abroad as a virtuoso painter and inspiring teacher at the Royal Academy in Munich. Munich, at this time rivaling Paris as a leading art center, was a magnet for many American artists, such as Duveneck, who came from German-speaking areas of the country, especially Cincinnati. While teaching in Munich and the neighboring countryside around Polling, Bavaria, Duveneck attracted a talented group of American students known as "The Duveneck Boys," through his thorough understanding of the Munich technique and his congenial personality. A number of these artists, including William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman, and Joseph DeCamp, would later become leading American painters and teachers.
Portrait of a Boy is a fine example of the figure painting Duveneck perfected in Munich at this time. In the early 1870s, the artist painted some of his most daring examples of this form of bravura painting. These paintings were compelling character studies in which the artist depicted only the head and shoulders of a solitary figure, painted in a broad, gestural style which emphasized technique for technique's sake. The dramatically lit and sensitively sculpted face of the model stands out against a relatively flat, broadly-washed ground of deep browns, grays, and blacks. The resulting emergence of the figure, as if by magic, from a sea of darkness imparts an uncanny psychological intensity, and further enhances the work's vitality. In Portrait of a Boy, the dark background which threatens to engulf the youthful sitter suggests a vulnerability and an inevitable mortality, giving the alla prima study a timeless, monumental quality.
Duveneck was particularly influenced by the German artist Wilhelm Leibl, who greatly admired the paintings of the seventeenth- century Dutch masters, particularly Frans Hals. The dramatic juxtaposition of lights and darks, expressive painterly brushstrokes, and telling command of gesture found in Portrait of a Boy, reveal Duveneck's deep understanding of his instructor, Leibl, and in turn, Frans Hals.
After leaving Munich, Duveneck established his own school in Florence at the urging of his student, Elizabeth Boott, whose family lived there. From there he ventured to Venice where he painted, etched, and conducted summer studies, continuing to attract a bright following of students. When Boott, an extremely talented artist and a beautiful woman who had become his wife in 1886, died tragically in 1888 of pneumonia, Duveneck retreated to America. In Cincinnati he taught and eventually directed the Art Academy with skill and devotion until his death in 1919. He continued to paint in a broad style throughout his later career, spending winters in Cincinnati and summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, but his Munich period remains the high-water mark of his oeuvre.