This work presents something of a puzzle, both as to its painter and to its genre. The lower section appears to be unfinished. The figure clearly represents the Roman god Apollo, for rays of light stream out from his laurel-wreathed head. To the right can be seen a musical instrument called a lyre and a sheet of music (its text is not legible). Both the lyre and the laurel wreath are attributes of Apollo. To the left lies a small still life composed of three books, two sculptured figures of naked cherubs and some architectural instruments - a set-square, dividers and a bladed tool. These objects, representing the various Arts, are also symbolic of Apollo. The lettering on the spine of the largest book is only partly discernible: ' … DES / DIEVS / ET / [..]IS VNIVERS / T P' (' … of the Gods and … universe T P').
In the auction at which this work was acquired (Christie's 18 November 1966, 24) it was catalogued as a decorative work by the Italian painter Antonio Verrio (c.1639-1707), who worked in Britain from the early 1670s. Following its acquisition by Tate, it was re-attributed to the Italian-trained French painter Louis Cheron (1660-1725) who was active in Britain from the 1690s onwards. Again, it was thought to relate to a decorative scheme and was considered to be close in handling to Cheron's ceilings of around 1695 for the Fourth State Room and Great Hall at Boughton House, Northamptonshire (reproduced in Edward Croft-Murray, Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837, 2 vols, London, vol. 1, 1962, plates 120-1).
In 1983, however, the French scholar Georges de Lastic proposed that it was in fact an allegorical portrait of an unknown young nobleman in the guise of Apollo - a portrait-historie - by the French painter, Nicolas de Largillierre (1656-1746). Portraits of sitters in the roles of figures from Classical mythology and history were highly fashionable in elite circles in early and mid-eighteenth century France. This attribution is extremely plausible, as independent comparison with later works by Largillierre has revealed. That the picture is a portrait of a specific individual, rather than a general representation of Apollo, is perhaps less convincing: the subject is a boy rather than a man, and the degree of nudity is unparalled in Largillierre's other allegorical portraits.
Early in his career, de Largillierre spent three short periods in Britain - in 1665-6, 1675-9 and 1685-6. Stylistically, however, this work is considerably later.
Largillierre and the Eighteenth-Century Portrait, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 1981
Georges de Lastic, 'Propos sur Nicolas de Largillierre', Revue de L'Art, no.62, [no month given], 1983, pp.73-82