The child's informal pose and lively expression owe much to the influence of the artist of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) upon Dyce early in his career. Mrs Clerk Maxwell seems only just to succeed in holding the child in check. In adult life James Clerk Maxwell was one of the outstanding British physicists of the nineteenth century, becoming first holder of the Chair of Experimental Physics at Cambridge in 1871. At various stages in its history, the painting has become known as 'James Clerk Maxwell,' and as 'A Small Boy, with his Mother,' a title which consigned the famous physicist's mother to anonymity.
Mrs Maxwell was the sister of Robert Dundas Cay and Jane Cay for whom the picture was painted. The Cays were relatives of the artist through Robert's marriage to Dyce's sister Isabelle. A letter and receipt from the artist dated 21 March 1833 is in the object file at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The file also contains transcripts of letters from Robert Dundas Cay describing the picture's execution:
'There was first the extreme difficulty I had in inducing Fanny to sit-then Dyce took ill before it was finished-the patient could not remain in town-the Artist had to go to Glenair to finish it there-then all this time I was pushing my fortune with his sister, my dear wife.'
The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1836 and was engraved by G. F. Stodart.