During his short lifetime, Maurycy Gottlieb won great acclaim in Europe over the course of only five years. He was particularly acclaimed in Jewish circles in Central and Eastern Europe for his masterpiece Jews Praying in the Synagogue on the Day of Atonement, presently in the collection of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. While studying in Munich in the mid-1870s, Gottlieb began painting subjects from Jewish life and history, thus contributing greatly to the later emergence of twentieth-century Jewish art. His work was informed by the Romantic and Realist movements prevalent in European art at this time. Gottlieb seems to have been torn between his identity as a Jew and as a Pole, and this tension plays out in his art, not least in the various incarnations he adopts in his self-portraits.
It was during the 1870s that Gottlieb encountered at first hand the work of Rembrandt. This experience would prove pivotal to his artistic development as he came to emulate in his portraits aspects of Rembrandt's technique, as well as his profound ability to capture the character and spirit of his sitter. Portrait of a Man with a Turkish Hat is a fine example of his abilities. In her 1991 monograph Nechama Guralnik described Gottlieb's portraits: "Inspired by the work of Rembrandt, he began producing portraits distinguished for their intimate mood, the persuasive penetration into the subjects' personality, and the use of light as a major element...He depicted the subjects of his portraits with a naturalness and modesty, refraining from endowing them with heroic or representative qualities and from expressing his own interpretation of their character" (N. Guralnik, In the Flower of Youth, Maurycy Gottlieb, Tel Aviv, 1991, p. 70).
Gottlieb depicted his subject, whom Mrs Guralnik believes to be a court jester - Stanczyc, a theme previously treated by Gottlieb's mentor Jan Matejko. The figure's features are portrayed with a striking naturalism, and his eyes convey a level of seriousness, if not sadness, that belies his likely occupation.