The composition of this enigmatic picture has been the object of great interest since the appearance, in 1983, of the signed and dated canvas by Willem van der Vliet (sold Sotheby’s, New York, 17 January 2011, lot 141). While our knowledge of van der Vliet’s life is somewhat limited, he gained enough acclaim in his own lifetime to be included in Dirck van Bleyswijck's Beschryvinge der stadt Delft published in 1667. He studied with Michiel van Mierevelt and joined the Delft painter's guild in 1615. While renowned as a portraitist, his career began as a history painter, which in the seventeenthcentury Netherlands included mythological and allegorical themes. Of only six such paintings known to us today, the subject of present Scholar in his study is undoubtedly the most intriguing.
On the iconography, much has been proposed: Leonard Slatkes suggested the concept of a playwright surrounded by his actors, a type of portrait historié (Holländische Malerei in neuem Licht: Hendrick ter Brugghen und seine Zeitgenossen, exhibition catalogue, Utrecht and Brunswick 1986-1987, no. 79), while Christina Wansinck proposed the man representing ‘the steadfast philosopher’ and the woman ‘earthly love’ (‘Some History and Genre Paintings by Willem van der Vliet’, Hoogsteder-Naumann Mercury, no. 6, 1987, pp. 4-5), which was questioned by Walter Liedtke, who cited the tradition of masks as associations to fraud and deceit (Vermeer and the Delft School, exhibition catalogue, New York and London 2001, pp. 56-58 and 418-420, no. 85). No doubt allegorical, this picture is related to two other known representations of scholars by van der Vliet: Teacher instructing his pupils (Private collection, London; see Wansink, op. cit., pp. 3-10) and Philosopher and his pupils (Moray, Brodie Castle, loc. cit.). On the latter is a paper inscribed with ancient dramatist Menander’s one-verse proverb in Latin: ‘The aim of good education is virtue.’ With the influence of Neostoicism in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Netherlands, the theme may be didactic as an allegory of vice and virtue; surrounded by figures seemingly representing masked temptations - the man with the talon purse a symbol of the vanity of riches, and the woman of lust - the scholar may perhaps be explaining the virtues of knowledge and thus seemingly enlighten the female figure through education, with the removal of her mask implying her realisation.