Dated 1671, this is a fine example of Adriaen van Ostade’s mature style, which is marked by increasingly elegant subject matter, a more colourful palette, and a highly refined and detailed technique. Ostade’s early range of tavern scenes and depictions of brawling and gambling peasants, painted loosely in subdued brown and ochre tones, evolved as his career progressed into a more idealised vision of daily life; with single-figure depictions of affluent professionals – lawyers, doctors and physicians – at work in their studies, becoming a central part of the artist’s repertoire through the 1660s and 70s.
The smartly dressed protagonist in this picture, who is rendered with admirable precision, is shown working at a draped table strewn with jars, flasks, books and other objects. He is smartly dressed and treated by Ostade with considerable respect, as a diligent and highly educated man of learning, even if his study is somewhat disorderly. Variously referred to in the past as a physician or doctor, the sitter can perhaps better be described as an apothecary, here seen concocting some kind of elixir from the array of potions on his table, with reference to the Kruidenboek open on his lectern. Similar works by the artist are in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin (dated 1665; inv. no. 1498) and in the Petit Palais in Paris (dated 1666; inv. PDUT00921).