We are grateful to Drs. Guido Jansen and Dr. Lyckle de Vries for independently confirming the attribution, after examining the picture in the original. As noted by Drs. Jansen, the picture shows Steen's characteristic painterly technique, with the figures painted in so-called 'reserves', their outlines covering the surrounding field. Pentimenti are visible in the hat of the boy on the right and in the left hand of Saint John.
Until its recent reappearance, this painting had not been seen publicly since its sale in The Hague in 1770, and constitutes an important rediscovery for the artist's oeuvre. It represents one of Steen's earliest forays into history painting, with the artist concentrating on a convincing representation of his figures in the landscape setting. Similar works of this period include, amongst others, the Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert in the Elizabeth Drey collection, New York (Kirschenbaum, op. cit., no. 2b, fig. 46), which is generally assumed to have been painted in 1651, and The Rape of the Sabine Women, in the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota (ibid., no. 76, fig. 50).
Both Drs. Jansen and Dr. de Vries have confirmed a dating for the present picture to the early years of the artist's career, circa 1648-51. This makes it concurrent with his first years as an artist in his own right - as has been pointed out by M.J. Bok ('Het Leven van Jan Steen', in the catalogue of the exhibition, Jan Steen Schilder en Verteller, 1996-7, p. 28), Steen registered at the Leiden Guild of Saint Luke in 1648, after his apprenticeship with Adriaen van Ostade in Haarlem. In October 1649, he married Grietje van Goyen in The Hague, where he would stay until 1654.
As one might expect, given his recent training there, this picture clearly shows the influence of the Haarlem school. Several of the foreground figures owe a strong debt to Van Ostade, most notably the boy on the right carrying ropes. The landscape reveals the artist's awareness of Haarlem's Italianate painters, for example Pieter van Laer and Nicolaes Berchem. Most striking, however, is the picture's closeness to the work of Jacob de Wet, whose stylistic proximity to early Steen was observed as early as 1917 by Dr. Wilhelm von Bode (see Kirschenbaum, op. cit., p. 37). De Wet painted numerous versions of the Preaching of Saint John the Baptist - a subject that was obviously popular amongst his clientele - including the signed picture formerly with Muellenmeister, Solingen (see W. Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt Schüuler, 1983, IV, p. 2785, no. 1867, illustrated).
Steen painted one other, larger, rendition of the subject; that picture, in the Nivaagard collection, Nivaa, Denmark (Kirschenbaum, op. cit., pp. 125-6, fig. 29; Braun, op. cit., p. 93., no. 58, illustrated), is dated by both Kirschenbaum and Braun to circa 1653. The present work, with its stronger dependence on the Haarlem masters, must be the earliest interpretation of the subject, a hypothesis supported by the larger scale of the foreground figures in the Nivaa painting - a stylistic development that anticipates Steen's later career.