Diogenes, c. 400-325 B.C. from Sinope, the celebrated Cynic philosopher of Athens, was respected in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century for having abandoned his worldly goods and adopting an ascetic life. He is depicted here wearing only a loin cloth.
Illustrated is the notorious episode told by Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, which was adapted and popularized at third hand by the poet Joost van der Vondel in Den Gulden Winckel der Konstilevende Nederlanders of 1613. It is daylight and Diogenes lantern is lit; he is looking for a man in vain, for as he explains to the townsfolk '...in your hearts no reason lives...you are people in name but beasts in fact'.
Rubens was probably the first Netherlandish artist to treat the theme in his lost painting of circa 1618-20; when he was in Utrecht in 1627, he admired a painting of the subject that was being worked on in Honthorst's studio. The theme was to enjoy a brief vogue in the Northern Netherlands.
Jordaens famously treated it in the early 1640s in his painting at Dresden, the composition of which resembles that in the present work, especially in the portrayal of Diogenes himself. D'Hulst accepted the present work (presumably on the basis of a photograph or reproduction) in his discussion of the preparatory drawings (on two sheets) for the Dresden picture. It was most likely made in preparation for the execution of the larger picture that was offered at a Bukowski sale, 25 April 1956, lot 144.