Until the rediscovery of this haunting painting in 1991, its composition was known only through a variant version in Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. The Dulwich version can be traced back to the late 18th century when it was sold by the Parisian dealer J.-B.-P. Le Brun to Noel Desenfans, and eventually bequeathed in 1811 to the London museum. The Dulwich version differs from the present painting in several small details and in two significant ways: it is considerably smaller in size (32.4 x 40 cm.) and it includes a rather mysterious third figure, which appears to be a portrait of a man inserted by the artist in the right-hand corner behind the guitar player, perhaps as an afterthought. The palette and paint handling of both versions are the same.
The dating of paintings by the Le Nain brothers and the assignment of particular canvases to individual hands are much-debated matters, but there is better reason for confidence in dating and attributing the present painting than most others. Both versions of A young man playing a guitar can be placed, based on their style, among a small group of pictures that includes the lovely Atelier of a Painter at Vassar College. As Jean-Pierre Cuzin first observed ('A Hypothesis concerning the Le Nain Brothers', The Burlington Magazine, December 1978, pp. 875-876), the costume worn by the figure of the painter in the Vassar picture became fashionable in France only in the early 1650s, several years after the deaths in 1648 of both Louis and Antoine Le Nain, when Matthieu was left to continue the family studio alone. Pierre Rosenberg (loc. cit.) has joined Cuzin in attributing the pictures in this group to Matthieu and dating them to the early 1650s, while Jacques Thuillier ('Le Nain: Leçons d'une exposition', Revue de Louvre, 1979, no. 2, pp. 158-166) and Alain Mérot (French Painting in the Seventeenth Century, New Haven and London, 1995, p. 179, note 19) doubt the hypothesis and regard the paintings as early collaborative works by the three brothers in which no single hand can be clearly identified.
Rosenberg has also proposed, altogether convincingly, that the present painting may have been conceived as the pendant to another work from this same group of pictures given to Matthieu and dating from the 1650s: The Concert, a picture of nearly identical dimentions (57 x 67.5 cm.), handling and format, equally audacious coloring and opulent costumes, that was sold at Christie's, Monaco, 15 June 1990, lot 43 and acquired by the Musée Municipal in Laon, the birthplace of the Le Nain brothers (see Rosenberg, loc. cit., no. 71).