All that remains of Leonardo's decorations in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan are some fragments in the Sala delle Asse which were, when discovered towards the end of the 19th century, restored in such a way that it is scarcely possible anymore to make out their original appearance.
Among Caravaggio's early works, this painting, in which the pose of the arm may recall his debt to the Persian Sibyl in a fresco by Peterzano, belongs to the small group which has always been seen as self-portraits. The livid colours of the subject's face, his teasing smile and the mock seriousness of his mythological dignity all reinforce the attempt to undermine the lofty pretensions of Renaissance artistic traditions. Here is no god, just a sickly young man who may be suffering from the after-effects of a hangover. There is no mistaking the artist's delight in the depiction of the fine peaches and black grapes on the slab, the white grapes in his hand and the vine leaves that crown his hair, but the artist is not content merely to demonstrate his superb technique: he wishes to play an intimate role and only the slab separates him from the viewer. His appearance is striking rather than handsome: he shows both that his face is unhealthy and that his right shoulder is not that of a bronzed Adonis, as convention required, but pale as in the case of any man who normally wears clothes.
In portraiture, as in other areas of painting, the tradition established by Bellini was transformed in the first decade of the sixteenth century by Giorgione. In contrast to the reserved formality of most fifteenth-century portraits, Giorgione introduced a new quality of soulfulness and intimacy into portraiture. He also expanded its expressive range by introducing motifs and compositional devices associated with other types of picture, so that in some cases it becomes difficult to decide whether or not a portrait-like image is meant to represent a real person. His younger contemporaries continued to explore the possibilities that he opened up for portraiture and related images for at least a decade after his death.
The colours of this brilliant portrait are unfortunately faded due to an overcleaning before 1939.
As this picture clearly shows, in his early commissioned portraits Hals adhered more closely to the old technique and to accepted conventions than in his genre works. During the first decades of his career he continued to follow the ancient idea of adjusting his style to his subject. Of course it is appropriate that the gestures and expressions of the nurse and the elegantly dressed Catherina are more refined than those used by a boisterous group celebrating carnival.
The double portrait is an excellent early example of Hals's subtle invention. The nurse, it seems, was about to present an apple to the young child when both were diverted by the approach of a spectator, to whom they appear to turn spontaneously, one of the many ingenious devices used by Hals to give the impression of a moment of life in his pictures. The colour scheme still shows the dark tonality of his early commissioned portraits, and the minute execution of the child's richly embroidered costume is set off by a delightful vivacity in the brushwork on the faces and hands.
In 1635 Catharina became the teen-age bride of extremely wealthy Cornelis de Graeff who later served repeatedly as burgomaster of Amsterdam and became the city's guiding political force as well as adviser and confidant of Johan de Witt, Holland's leading statesman after the middle of the century.