Otto van Veen, also known by his Latinized name Otto (or Octavius) Venius, was born in Leiden in 1556. His father, Cornelis Jansz. van Veen, had been burgomaster there; however the family, being catholic, moved to Antwerp in 1572, and then to Liège. Having been apprenticed to Isaac van Swanenburg while in Leiden, Venius subsequently studied with the painters Dominicus Lampsonius and Jean Ramey, before setting off for Rome in 1574/75. He remained there for five years, working and studying in the studio of Federico Zuccaro. He travelled back to the Low Countries via Prague and Munich, where - according to Karel van Mander - he worked at the courts of the Emperor Rudolf II and William V of Bavaria respectively. By 1582/3, van Veen was in the service of the Prince-Bischop of Liège, before moving to Brussels, where he became court painter to Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, who was governor of the Netherlands.
In 1593 van Veen bought a house in Antwerp for 1.000 guilders on the Vuylestraat (now known as Otto Veniusstraat); the subsequent year he became a master in the local guild of St Luke. He oversaw a large workshop, where later greats such as Frans Pourbus the Younger and Peter Paul Rubens honed their craft. In 1602 he became the dean of the guild of St Luke; in 1606 he became a member of the Romanists, an Antwerp society for artists who had travelled to Rome. In 1614 Venius became court painter to the Archdukes Albrecht and Isabella; he died in Brussels in 1629.
After settling in Antwerp, van Veen early on received several commissions, including one for an altarpiece in the Antwerp cathedral and a chapel in the city hall. Many more official and religious commissions would follow. In addition, he also worked for various private patrons, producing (group) portraits and a number of mythological, allegorical and history works. Venius, as a classically educated humanist artist or pictor doctus (learned painter), also took an active interest in ancient literature, philosophy and iconography, producing several so-called emblem books, which paired quotations and mottoes with images symbolizing them.
Venius produced not only painting but also a sizeable body of drawings, many of them executed in oil on paper - such as the Martyrdom of St Andrew sold by the gallery to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012 - which often served as models for his paintings or as designs for the engravings in his books. As a learned and gifted artist who balanced between the high renaissance and the nascent baroque, he was an important artist, who was considered by the artist biographer Arnold Houbraken to be the most impressive artist of his day. His emblems were hugely influential on later artists, and his influence on his contemporaries, especially the early Rubens, was profound.
The present work has been recently reattributed to van Veen; the attribution has subsequently been confirmed by independent experts from the Rubenianum. This small-scale picture shows Mary Magdalen looking up, a single tear rolling down her left cheeck. Her right hand is held out, while her left is resting on her most common attribute, the ointment jar with which she anointed Christ.