A boy sits in a dark room, but a glimmer of light through the window reveals his face and the dead mouse he holds in one hand. The other hand covers the mousetrap. This is not a portrait but an imaginary situation, intended as an entertainment and, possibly, a moral lesson.
The boy lifts his chin to gaze into the distance as if in a dream. His wistful expression would suggest that it’s not the triumph of catching the mouse he’s dreaming of, but something – or someone – nearer to his heart and yet far away. The implication is that if you are trapped by love, you are lost in dreams and unaware of the world around you. The correct place for love was thought to be in marriage.
The boy seems to be dressed in the fashion of the sixteenth century. A white shirt gleams at the open neck of a brocade doublet, yet the feather in his hat and the outsize bow holding back his long, black curls are more the style of the late 1670s, when the picture was painted. Far from celebrating ridding the household of a pest, the boy lifts his chin to gaze into the distance as if in a dream. His wistful expression would suggest that it’s not the triumph of catching the mouse he’s dreaming of, but something – or someone – nearer to his heart and yet far away. In the eighteenth century the painting still had a pendant, A Boy putting a Bird in a Cage, which is now lost. It has been suggested that the two pictures formed a related pair whose subject is moderation in love.
In classical literature, the image of a mouse and mousetrap was used to symbolise the punishment of overindulgence; poets of the seventeenth century carried on the tradition, particularly in matters of love. One of them, Jacob Cats, also wrote popular emblem books on morals and correct behaviour, so such imagery would have been widely understood – if you are trapped by love, you are unaware of the world around you and lost in dreams. The correct place for love was thought to be in marriage. The birdcage in the lost picture might have been interpreted in two ways, possibly depending on whether the bird was shown singing or not. Being a captive to love can be a pleasure, but can also prevent you from engaging with the world.
We don’t know who, if anyone, commissioned the picture, it was painted quite early in Adriaen van der Werff’s career. Later, when he had found success, he became court painter to the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm in Düsseldorf, and was created a knight in 1703.
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