This painting was commissioned from Jan de Bray by the Haarlem House for Destitute Children. It hung over the mantelpiece in the trustees’ room. The payment to De Bray is recorded in the orphanage ledger; he received seventy-two guilders for this ‘picture painted by him being 3 works of mercy’.
Of the seven Christian works of mercy, the three depicted in this painting relate directly to the daily care of orphans: clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty and feeding the hungry. Bread is doled out and the children eat it hungrily, a girl is given a drink from a tankard (this is probably small beer, a sort of weak beer that was drunk every day) and all the children change their old rags for the orphanage clothes, recognizable from the different coloured sleeves – one red and one black. They are helped by the workers in the home.
The House for Destitute Children was housed in the former Convent of Mary Magdalene. The tower in the background of the painting is very similar to that of the convent chapel. In 1765 the House for Destitute Children was merged with the Heilige Geesthuis and later became known as the Reformed or Municipal Orphanage. In 1810 the orphanage moved to the former Old Men’s Alms House, the building that now houses the Frans Hals Museum.