Luca Cambiaso was the leading artist in Genoa in the sixteenth century and is considered to have been the founder of the Genoese school. During his training as an artist with his father (a provincial painter of whom little is known) Luca studied extensively the works in Genoa by Perino del Vaga, Domenico Beccafumi, Pordenone and, in particular, Giulio Romano. It is likely that, between 1547 and 1550, he visited Rome, where the followers of Michelangelo, for example Daniele da Volterra and Pellegrino Tibaldi, must have made a profound impression on him. Although Cambiaso was a prolific draftsman, few of his drawings appear to be preparatory for pictures.
This, and his spontaneous manner of painting, with remarkably broad brushstrokes, supports the hypothesis that Cambiaso did not use preliminary drawings for his pictures. The free handling of the brush in the present picture creates a lively impression on the picture surface which is characteristic of Cambiaso's early style of the 1550s and 1560s, and comparable to the treatment of the paint in two pictures of the same period: the Saints Roch, Sebastian and Erasmus, and the Madonna and Child with Angels, both now in the church of Santa Maria della Castagna, Genoa (L. Magnani, Luca Cambiaso, Genoa, 1995, figs. 78-81). The pose of the Child illustrates the interest in foreshortening which Cambiaso developed in his drawings of figures in abstract cuboid shapes.
This picture may have been acquired by Sir John Acton, Prime Minister of Naples under Ferdinand IV. It passed into the collection of the 1st Lord Acton, the celebrated nineteenth-century historian. In the early 1890s, the picture was purchased by Henry Doetsch, who had acquired a considerable collection of Italian pictures, including the Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman, traditionally attributed to Titian and Giorgione, which is now in the National Gallery, Washington.