This painting is believed to have been of a figure known as Niño de Vallecas, who was a jester in the court of Philip IV. Velazquez served here as a court painter and was tasked with producing portraits of a number of figures here, including the King himself on many occasions. A close examination of the composition reveals that the jester is holding cards in his hand, which helps to explain to the viewer his role at the time. The artist would feature jesters in a number of paintings and they were chosen generally to entertain due to either their wit and theatrical abilities, or because of disabilities which were openly mocked during these times. Despite that, the jesters were able to make a successful career from these types of opportunities, where otherwise they have ended up in dire straits.
The boy himself is sat outdoors, besides a large tree trunk that darkens most of the background behind him. His clothing is strong and solid, but entirely within detail, suggesting a poor background, though his shoes are well made and in condition so he is far from homeless. A beach curves around in the background, displaying just a small touch of the sea. Behind that is a flat expanse of farming land, with a mountain range in the far distance. The sky is bright and the overall atmosphere of this painting is relatively positive, considering how those with this child's background would normally be treated during the 17th century. It may well have been the boy's employment that has enabled him to avoid the pitfalls of others, and the portrait here helps us to understand and appreciate that very point.
In terms of portraiture, Anthony van Dyck was also another highly skilled exponent within this genre, with some of his notable artworks including the likes of Charles I at the Hunt, Charles I in Three Positions and Equestrian Portrait with M de St Antoine. He was one of the true masters of North European art and remains highly revered today, just as Velazquez does himself within Spain and around the artistic world. For many centuries portrait painting was the most popular genre due to the number of patrons who wished to have their own appearance, plus that of their close family, recorded for future generations. In the years before the modern media, this was a necessity in order to help shape how your own image would be perceived in the following centuries, and by selecting the finest portrait painters and directing them in how you wanted to appear, this could be achieved.