He was born in what was then known as the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Although he lived and painted at a time when Dutch artists had their greatest impact on the development of European art, Drost is a painter about whom very little is known.
Around 1650, he became a student of Rembrandt, eventually developing a close working relationship, painting history scenes, biblical compositions, symbolic studies of a solitary figure, as well as portraits. As a student, his 1654 painting titled Bathsheba was inspired by Rembrandt's painting done in the same year on the same subject and given the same title. This was a common practice at the time and even a few hundred years later, other artists such as Paul Cézanne did a painting titled Bathsheba. Both Drost’s and Rembrandt’s masterpieces were acquired by the Louvre in Paris.
Sometime in the mid 1650s, the young artist was sent to Rome, where he painted with fellow Dutchman Johannes Vermeer from Utrecht. After a few years, Drost went on to Venice to paint with the artist Johann Carl Loth. His death there is documented in 1658.
Willem Drost’s recognized lifetime output of artwork is very small, while Rembrandt is credited with more than 2,000 paintings and etchings, the majority of which are not signed. In recent years, some paintings attributed to Rembrandt have had their authenticity come under question. The importance of these Rembrandt works is such that the Foundation Rembrandt Research Project was established in Amsterdam to review all of his works on which there could be a question as to whether it was that of Rembrandt or one of his distinguished pupils. Scholars have now reattributed a number of Rembrandt’s paintings to these associates.
Drost had evolved into one of Rembrandt’s most talented disciples, so much so that his 1654 painting titled: Portrait of a Young Woman with her Hands Folded on a Book was one of the ones attributed to Rembrandt for more than 300 years. As well, when the portrait of a young man on horseback titled The Polish Rider was discovered in 1897 it too was attributed to Rembrandt. Acquired by New York City's Frick Collection, The Polish Rider is one of the Frick Museum's most valued treasures. However, years ago, the painting’s authenticity was questioned by several scholars, led by the renowned expert Julius Held. Many others, including Dr. Josua Bruyn of the Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, now believe this great painting may also be that of Willem Drost as may be several others.
As a result of all these investigations, more and more scholars are looking at Willem Drost's known works and his reputation has grown in stature to the point that today he is being considered as one of the greatest of the "Old Masters".
The exact year of Willem Drost’s death is given by a document in the Venice archives, as 1658.
Some of Willem Drost’s works:
Other paintings, date and owner to be determined: