This small panel was probably painted by Frans Floris I as a head study, a practice which constituted one of the most enduring innovations of his workshop. Following his return from Italy in circa 1545, the painter established a large and prolific studio in his native city of Antwerp, modelled in part on those he had observed in Rome, notably that of Giulio Romano. Here, Floris pioneered the creation of carefully observed head studies, painted from life, which he retained in his workshop to serve as models for future compositions. These head studies allowed the artist to regulate the quality of his assistants’ work and to save time from inventing new figure types. This practice was recorded by Karel van Mander in his Het Schilder-Boeck (1604), where he described how the painter would ‘set his journeymen to do the dead colouring [the paint or underpainting, usually in monochrome or reduced colour, applied over the ground and underdrawing to block in a composition] after he had indicated to them his intention somewhat with chalk, letting them get on with it, after having said: Put in these or those heads; for he always had a few of those to hand on panels’ (fol. 242v). The practice became enormously popular in Antwerp, famously influencing the workshop practice of great seventeenth masters like Rubens, van Dyck and Jordeans.
This study was used, for example, for the figure at the far left of his Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. This may have been the painting described by van Mander as: ‘a very beautiful, large, important painting in which Christ calls the little children to him… in which subtle faces are to be seen’ (fol. 242r). The same head, with only minor variations, also appears to have been used as the head of the Saint Luke in Floris’ Saint Luke painting the Virgin (Ghent, Sint-Baafskathedraal). It is likely that later in the study’s history, probably during the seventeenth century, the inscription identifying the figure as Diogenes was added.