Gerrit Pietersz. van Zijl was all but lost to art historical memory until the early 1920s when Abraham Bredius began to reconstruct his oeuvre. He attributed around thirty paintings to van Zijl, many of which had been given to a range of other artists, among them Frans Francken II, Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch, Karel du Jardin, and Karel de Moor. By contrast, van Zijl was well known during his lifetime-he was called the 'the little van Dyck' and his works sold in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for higher prices even than those of Rembrandt or Vermeer (J. Mellaart, The Burlington Magazine 1922, p. 147).
Most of the paintings attributed to van Zijl are genre scenes on a small scale, at least three of which are signed: The letter (St. Gilgen, F.C. Butôt), Merry company (Stuttgart, private collection), and The concert (M. Paul Matthey, Paris). He was better known by his contemporaries as a portraitist but, apart from a signed copy in Braunschweig of a painting by van den Tempel and a lost portrait of Govaert Flink recorded in a mezzotint by Walerant Vaillant, few of his portraits have been identified, making this painting a particularly interesting addition to van Zijl's oeuvre. In it, members of an extended family gather around a table within an elegant and spacious interior. Like a merry company scene it features food, drink, and animated conversation but the attention to particular physiognomies and the presence of the seated man at the right looking directly at the viewer place it firmly within the realm of portraiture. Van Zijl's handling of materials and surfaces recalls the best of the Leiden fijnschilders and passages such as the classicizing arch that reveals a cloudy sky at the center of the scene and the hands of the woman entering from the left are reminiscent of van Dyck. Mellaart mentions a lost portrait by van Zijl of his own family and it is tempting to speculate about whether this fits such criteria, as the man looking out at the viewer follows contemporary conventions of self portraiture.
Van Zijl first studied with landscape painter Jan Pynas around 1629 and later joined van Dyck's studio in Antwerp. Much of his biographical information is based on biographer Arnold Houbraken's account, which emphasized van Zijl's friendship with van Dyck. Indeed, van Zijl seems to have travelled with van Dyck to England and is recorded living opposite him in Westminster. After van Dyck's death in 1641, he returned to Amsterdam where he lived on the Hartestraat between 1650 and 1658. Houbraken singled out van Zijl's portraits of young girls for particular praise, comparing the delicate painting of their hands with those of van Dyck. Weyerman followed Houbraken's narrative closely but added that he saw two of van Zijl's paintings at Badminton, further evidence for an English sojourn. Jan Verkolje is recorded as having completed unfinished mythological and genre paintings by van Zijl during his apprenticeship with Jan Lievens.