Born in Antwerp, Simon du Bois studied with Philips Wouwerman in 1652-3 and then spent some years in Italy. In about 1680 he settled in Covent Garden in London. Granted British denization (a form of naturalisation) in 1697, du Bois also acted as a dealer in works of art. As well as portraits, du Bois painted battle scenes and pastiches of Italian Old Masters, some of which, according to the antiquarian and engraver George Vertue, were passed off as genuine.
Du Bois's earliest English works, of which this is one, are head-and-shoulders portraits in plain, feigned oval surrounds. They are characterised by strong Italianate lighting, a fuzzy handling of the flesh and an exceptional precision in depicting the fashionable lace cravats worn by his male sitters. They are thus a vivid fusion of Netherlandish and Italian elements. The Tate portrait particularly emphasises the Italianate element in the melting pot of Continental influences that made up late seventeenth-century art in Britain. The work is in excellent condition, and is in an elaborately carved and gilded frame that is probably contemporary with it.
An early twentieth-century label formerly attached to the back identifies the sitter as 'Arthur Parsons M.D. Oxon. B. 1656. Dsp. M[arried]. Mary Jackson.'. The front of the work is inscribed, in the top left spandrel of the feigned oval: 'Nat: xxix Octob: 1653' (that is, 'Born 29 October 1653'), and 'Aetat suae xxx' (indicating that the sitter was either aged 30 or in his 30th year) in the top right one. The discrepancy between the sitter's birthdate as given on the painting and that apparently recorded for Parsons - 1656 - leaves the sitter's identity in doubt.
Parsons was probably the son of Arthur and Agnes Parsons of West Buckland, Somerset. His date of birth is not documented, but when he matriculated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford on 22 March 1672, he was said to be aged 16. He subsequently travelled to the Netherlands to study medicine at the universities of Leiden and of Groningen. At this period, Leiden was the Dutch Republic's most distinguished university and attracted Europe's best foreign students. Its faculty of medicine had a considerable international reputation and, by the 1680s, 'the value of a Leiden degree counted for much, particularly among the upper classes and generally conservative members of the medical profession' (Rousseau, pp.195-6). Returning to England, he was admitted Extra Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians on 17 March 1684. (In Britain at this period, the year was considered to begin on 25th March; thus, Parsons gained his admittance in 1683, Old Style.) He may have commissioned the present portrait, which bears the date 1683, to mark this professional achievement, and his experience of Holland would have made it natural for him to turn for this to a Netherlandish painter. Parsons subsequently practised as a physician at Taunton, in Somerset, and died in 1720.
Richard Jefree, 'Simon du Bois', in Jane Shoaf Turner (ed.), The Dictionary of Art, London and New York 1996, IV, p.327.
G S Rousseau, 'Science and Medicine at Leiden', in The Age of William III & Mary II, R P Maccubbin and M Hamilton-Phillips (eds),Williamsburg 1988, pp.195-201
Harold J Cook, 'The Medical Profession in London', in The Age of William III & Mary II, R P Maccubbin and M Hamilton-Phillips (eds),Williamsburg 1988, pp.186-94.