Cornelis Bega was born into prosperous circumstances. His mother, Maria Cornelis, inherited half the estate (gold, silver, paintings, drawings and prints) and all of the red chalk drawings of her father, Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, a renowned Mannerist artist. Bega’s father was Pieter Jansz. Begijn (d 1648), a gold- and silversmith. Like other family members, Bega was probably Catholic. Houbraken’s claim that Bega studied with Adriaen van Ostade is likely to be correct; this was probably before 24 April 1653, when Bega joined Vincent Laurentsz. van der Vinne in Frankfurt for a journey through Germany, Switzerland and France. Bega had returned to Haarlem by 1 September 1654, at which time he joined the Guild of St Luke; he was already a competent draughtsman, as indicated by his first extant dated work, Interior with a Nursing Mother (1652; Frankfurt am Main, Städel. Kstinst.), and by a remarkable double portrait (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum) drawn by him and Leendert van der Cooghen in 1654.
Bega painted, drew, etched and made counterproofs in a wide variety of materials on different types of small-scale supports. He may have been the first Dutch artist to make monotypes, but this remains controversial. Approximately 160 paintings, 80 drawings and six monotypes by Bega have been catalogued, as well as around 34 etchings. Bega’s principal subjects were genre representations of taverns, domestic interiors and villages. He depicted nursing mothers, prostitutes, drunks, smokers, gamblers and fools such as quack doctors and alchemists. Less common subjects include the ridiculed or pestered woman, as in Two Figures and Mother with a Spirits Bottle (c. 1662; Gouda, Stedel, Museum Catharina Gasthuis) and The Inn (etching), as well as witty satires on traditional scenes of middle-class music-makers, such as the Music Lesson (1663; Paris, Petit Palace).
Bega’s early paintings, such as the Weaver’s Family (c. 1652; St Petersburg, Hermitage), are freely executed, dark and coarse, recalling the many-figured peasant subjects of van Ostade. Between c. 1660 and 1664 he began to paint genre scenes with fewer figures, which are finely articulated, colourful and psychologically expressive, for example Two Men Singing (1662; Dublin, N.G.). His exquisite, late fijnschilderen (‘fine painting’) manner, evident in The Alchemist (1663; Malibu, Getty Museum), compares well with that of Gerrit Dou.
As a draughtsman Bega is noted for his single-figure studies, executed mainly in black and white chalk on blue paper or red chalk on white paper. None of the studies, which were drawn naer het leven (from life), seem to relate to a painting or etching. Bega traded drawings or shared models with other artists of the Haarlem school, including van der Cooghen, Gerrit Berckheyde, Dirck Helmbreker and Cornelis Visscher. These artists drew chalk figure studies in a very similar style, characterised by regular and precise parallel shading and well-defined forms; their drawings, especially those of Bega and Berckheyde, have been frequently confused. Unlike the realistic figure studies, Bega’s etchings depict interiors with figures or single figures in the manner of van Ostade; the compositions, often with masterful chiaroscuro effects, reflect most closely the paintings of the 1650s.
Bega is likely to have remained in Haarlem, where he paid dues to the Guild in 1661. He probably died from the plague; fees for his expensive funeral at St Bavo’s were paid on 30 August 1664. Among the artists he influenced were Thomas Wijck, Jan Steen, Richard Brakenburg (1650–1702) and Cornelis Dusart. Painters such as R. Oostrzaen ( fl ?1656) and Jacob Toorenvliet (1635/6–1719) and later European artists imitated Bega’s style and borrowed principal characters from his low-life dramas.
Bega is represented in the following collections: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; National Gallery, London; Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Berlin; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin; Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, amongst others.