The work features a small boy, apparently a seventeenth century Spanish court page, holding a full-size sword and belt. Leon Koella-Leenhoff, Édouard Manet's stepson, recalled posing for the work at around the age of ten. The painting has been interpreted as a tribute to the great Spanish painters that Manet admired, and is recognised to be heavily influenced by the works of Velazquez and Hals.
French artist Édouard Manet (not to be confused with Claude Monet, impressionist painter of the same era and friend of Manet), was one of the first 19th-century artists to paint modern life. His early masterworks, The Luncheon on the Grass (1863) and Olympia (1863) are considered significant paintings that mark the start of modern art. Édouard Manet's earlier works are characterised by loose brush strokes, simplified details and muted transitional tones. He adopted the style of Realism (an attempt to represent subject matter truthfully and inartificially), which was instigated by Gustave Courbet.
Boy with a Sword is typical of this art movement, but compared to some of Édouard Manet's other paintings of the time, is a simple, almost supressed work. Early in his career, Édouard Manet's paintings typically involved contemporary subjects, such as beggars and singers, and historical or religious subjects were a rare feature. Boy with a Sword was a digression from this common theme. Critical reviews of the Boy with a Sword were positive on the five occasions between 1862 and 1872 that Édouard Manet exhibited it. The painting has since been reproduced as an engraving, overseen by Dijon painter and etcher Alphonse Legros. The original oil painting is now displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Édouard Manet later became a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism (an art movement characterised by small, thin, visible brush strokes, open composition and emphasis on depicting light and its changing qualities accurately). In Édouard Manet's last 20 years, he bonded with other great artists of the time and developed an innovative style that would influence many future painters.