Despite the monogram, this work was, at the time of its donation to the Nationalmuseum in 1871, attributed both to Frans Hals and to Jan de Bray. Not until 1893 did Hofstede de Groot identity it as a work of Judith Leyster. Boy Playing a Flute is one of the artist’s most important and attractive paintings. It probably originated in the early 1630s, since it still shows traces of the influence of the Utrecht Caravaggists. The composition is fresh and highly original. The subject is a combination of a genre scene, a still life and a portrait.
Several scholars have discussed the iconography of this painting. Hardcastle believes that the boy is holding the flute the wrong way round, and that the painting is consequently reversed. This view is refuted by Hofrichter, who points out that a simple flute can be held either way. She also suggests that the painting may have a hidden meaning, representing one of the five senses, namely Hearing. Franits has remarked the juxtaposition of a flute and a violin may not be purely fortuitous. Within the ideological world of early modern music, these instruments were considered antipodes. Stringed instruments theoretically belonged to a loftier category, associated with Pythagorean harmony, whereas wind instruments were considered less sophisticated, frequently being depicted in the hands of peasants or shepherds. The flute player’s upward glance can often be found in similar depictions of musicians and saints, and alludes to the capacity of music to inspire and animate.
Hofrichted finds a number of perplexing details in the painting, such as the fact that the boy is sitting on a broken chair. While Dutch genre paintings from this period often do have double meanings, a depiction like this one may be entirely realistic.