In his day, Frank Duveneck was Cincinnati’s most celebrated artist. Born in Covington, Kentucky, to Bavarian immigrants, Duveneck traveled to Munich in 1870 to pursue his art education. At that time, Munich was home to some of the most advanced artists in Europe, including Wilhelm Leibl, whose dark, unsentimental portraits impressed the young American. Duveneck later became an influential teacher, bringing the liberating aspects of progressive German art to the United States.
"The Whistling Boy" announced Duveneck’s brilliant mastery of Munich School realism. This is the first of several renditions of working-class ruffians—works indebted to the lowlife genre tradition of the seventeenth-century masters Diego Velázquez and Frans Hals. The subject of this portrait emerges from a shadowy background: Duveneck painted the boy with layers of bold, fully laden strokes and patches. The work reveals his unabashed joy in the expressiveness of luscious, undiluted paint brushed directly onto the canvas. A touch of youthful vulnerability distinguishes this young man from the cigar-wielding toughs in Duveneck’s later interpretations of this theme.
A recent conservation treatment confirmed the often-told story that "The Whistling Boy" is actually one of Duveneck's smoking boys. Removal of thick, discolored varnish made the youth's sketchy raised right hand legible, revealing the cigarette he holds.