Designated by George III as "Historical Painter to the King" in 1772, West produced many portraits of the royal family for both official and private purposes. Prince Octavius (1779-1783), the royal couple's eighth son, was painted several times during his short life by West. In the artist's first oil portrait of the child, the Prince appears at full length, dressed in buff with a blue sash. The boy appears again in 'The Apotheosis of Prince Alfred and Prince Octavius," where West shows Octavius reunited in Heaven with his younger brother who died nine months before him. Certainly the King felt the loss of this son most poignantly: "there will be no Heaven for me, if Octavius is not there."
Historians speculate that West may have painted this watercolor for his own collection after the child's death. Others suggest that the work may have served as a reference point for his larger portrait of the Prince. Whatever inspired the picture, West, an affectionate father who was also close to the royal family, clearly was moved by Octavius's early death. The size and delicacy of the rendering make 'Prince Octavius' an exceptional work, inviting mixed emotions of affection and loss.