Cornelis van Haarlem was born into a wealthy family from Haarlem. During the Spanish siege of Haarlem, his parents abandoned the city when he was only ten, leaving both the house and their son in the care of Pieter Pietersz, who was to become van Haarlem’s teacher. Cornelis moved to France in 1579, but was forced to turn back at Rouen by an outbreak of the plague and spent a year in Antwerp at the studio of Gilles Coignet. Two years after his return to Haarlem in 1580-81, he established the Haarlem Academy with Hendrik Goltzius and Karel van Mander, where he set up practice as a painter and architect. In 1603, he married Maritgen Arentsdr Deyman who, in her own right, was quite wealthy. Later, he was to father an illegitimate daughter who ultimately became the mother of the painter Cornelis Bega.
van Haarlem painted in the Italianate, late Mannerist style that dominated Europe at the outset of the seventeenth century. He was at ease with the grand scale, the exaggeration of expression, the attenuation of forms, the sensual textures, and the mythological and biblical subjects of Mannerist work. His role at the Haarlem Academy, along with that of Goltzius, helped to establish the Mannerist style in the Northern Netherlands: Cornelis passed his Mannerist tendencies on to his students, including Gerrit Pieterzs, Lang Jan van Delft, Cornelis Jacobz Delft, Cornelis Enghelsen Verspronck, Gerrit Nop, Zacharias Paulusz van Alkmaar, and Pieter Lastman.
In addition to his work as an artist and architect, van Haarlem worked for reform both in social institutions and the guild system in which all artists and artisans participated. He became a regent of the Old Men’s Almshouse in Haarlem from 1614 until 1619, where his work inspired him to paint his first group portraits; he would later become well known for his innovative approach to group portraiture. Frustrated with the arcane systems governing the Guild of St. Luke, he joined the fashionable Catholic Guild of St. Jacob in 1626, staying until 1629. In 1630, he rejoined the St. Luke Guild, revising its structure in a way that conferred a higher status on the role of art and artists in 17th century Haarlem.
His work is housed in many museum collections, including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Gallery of Art of Denmark in Copenhagen, the Musée d’Art Ancien of the Royal Arts Museums of Belguim in Brussels, the Louvre Museum, the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, the National Gallery in London, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Brukenthal Museum in Sibiu, Romania, the Musée de la Chartreuse in Douai, the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, and the Musées des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, Caen, Carcassonne, La Haye, Lille, Quimper, and Valenciennes.