This work used to be dated to the early 17th century, but recent cleaning and technical examination have shown that it has much in common with paintings produced by Titian and his workshop in the 1530s.
The music that the boy sings from is typical of part books printed in Venice in the 1520s and 30s. He appears to be under instruction from the senior figure, who beats time with his right hand. The accompaniment is supplied by a bass viol and a recorder.
This type of composition – a group with suggestions of narrative and sometimes of portraiture – was developed in the late 15th century and seems to have been made popular by Giorgione. The musical theme suggests amorous associations and also the passing of time.
The painting is recorded in the Gonzaga collection in 1627, and subsequently in that of Charles I of England, but before then it was possibly in the Mantua palace of the Maffei, a noble Mantuan family, who were patrons of Titian and Correggio and whose best pictures (including Correggio’s ‘The School of Love’) were transferred to the Gonzaga at the end of the 16th century.
It was purchased by the National Gallery from the Angerstein collection.