In the 17th century Antwerp was the leading European centre for painted cabinets, a production encouraged by Philip II of Spain's 1603 ban on the import of Nuremberg cabinets. Contemporary painted interiors show that they were display pieces, with the ebony doors often open to display small oil paintings. These cabinets were used to house collections of jewellery, silver, minerals, shells and other specimen, a link with the princely tradition of the kunstkammer.
Hendrick van Balen I (1573-1632) was a master of the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke and ran his own workshop for thirty years, counting Anthony van Dyck as one of his pupils. While he began his career painting large-scale altarpieces, Van Balen is best known for his pictures on cabinets. In accordance with the then contemporary taste, mythological scenes frequently occur on his small-scale paintings and often feature imagery from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the Elements or the Muses. Popular subjects depicted on the drawers of the present cabinet include Narcissus, Diana and Endymion, Neptune and Amphitrite as well as a Triton and Nereid. A closely related cabinet on stand attributed to Van Balen was sold Sotheby's, London, 25 May 2001, lot 36 (£58,000 including premium).