This somber, half-length portrait depicts a beggar, clothed in a green coat and red hat, warming his hands over a bowl of hot coals on the table in front of him. Next to him sits a boy wearing a hat and blowing on his hands. During the 1650s, Sweerts executed similar unpretentious genre scenes showing beggars and peasants in a Caravaggesque manner, such as the Old Man Drinking (Galleria dell’Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome) and Old Man and a boy by a fire (private collection, Dusseldorf). In addition to the Dutch figure type of the old man here, influences from Sweerts' Roman years are evident, particularly in the intense use of chiaroscuro. Sweerts' careful observation of the male physiognomy is remarkable and reflects the artist’s special interest in portraiture. The pendant to this work, which originally also hung in the Palazzo Corsini, is now unfortunately lost. It is, however, described as an “old man knitting, together with a boy holding the wool in his right hand while scratching his head with his left" (see R. Kulzen, op. cit., no. 21). For the present composition, Sweerts likely took inspiration from early 17th-century allegorical representations of Winter, who was often shown as an old man warming his hands over a brazier, popularized by artists such Abraham Bloemaert and Gerrit van Honthorst.
Tantalizingly little is known of Sweerts's life. He was born to a Brussels family of cloth merchants, and baptized Catholic. Twenty-eight undocumented years later he emerged in Rome, living among the boisterous crew of Northern painters ("Bentvueghels" or "birds of a feather") in the Santa Maria del Popolo quarter. By 1656 he had returned to Brussels, where he launched an academy of life-drawing and published his graphic series, Diversae Facies "for the use of the young." In 1660 he relocated to Amsterdam, where he joined the Société des Missions Etrangères (an austere order modelled on St. Vincent de Paul's teachings) and in 1661 Sweerts accompanied their missionary expedition, which departed from Marseilles and would eventually bring them to China. After months of arduous travel in which four of the party died, the missionaries had had enough of the artist; in a 1662 report their leader wrote, "our good Mr Svers is not the master of his own mind. I do not think that the mission was the right place for him, nor he the right man for the mission." We know little else , except that Sweerts headed south to the religious colony of Goa, in Portuguese India that year, where he died in 1664, although whether from a mental, or physical illness is unknown.