Born in Philadelphia to the Russian émigré landscape painter Leonid Gechtoff, Sonia Gechtoff studied art in high school before winning a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. The curriculum was geared toward commercial art, but Gechtoff also learned anatomy and drew from the model, which would have a lasting effect on her later abstract drawings. The artist graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1950 and soon moved to San Francisco, where she enrolled for one semester in a printmaking class at the California School of Fine Arts in 1951. She arrived in San Francisco at a time of great artistic ferment. Clyfford Still had recently left a five-year teaching stint at the School and in his wake were the resounding aftershocks of Abstract Expressionism. Gechtoff met and became friendly with the core group who would make up the Bay Area Abstract Expressionists including Elmer Bischoff, NA, Ernest Briggs, Hassel Smith, and others. Ultimately, she would develop a refined abstract style and she became one of the more prominent painters in San Francisco at the time.
In 1953 Gechtoff married fellow artist James Kelly, NA, whom she had met through her association with the California School of Fine Arts. The couple were active participants in the burgeoning Bay Area art scene and exhibited frequently with other abstract artists at cooperative galleries the King Ubu, and its successor the Six. Both venues were also important centers for emerging Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and Jack Spicer. In 1957 Gechtoff was selected for a solo exhibition at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum and the following year she was chosen as part of the American pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair that also included Willem de Kooning, NA elect, Grace Hartigan, Robert Motherwell, NA, Ad Reinhardt, and others. At the time in San Francisco there developed a divisive split between the abstract artists and those who renounced abstraction and returned to representation, primarily Elmer Bischoff, NA, David Park, and later Richard Diebenkorn, NA. Unhappy with the environment, Gechtoff and Kelly moved to New York in 1958.
By the late 1950s Gechtoff's work had significantly matured and began to exhibit a few distinct characteristics, as Susan Landauer and others have noted. "The Visitor," while completely abstract, comes from a series of works in which the subject references a figure. As in other paintings from that group, the artist applied paint to the canvas exclusively with a palette knife. It was a technique for which she became known and an early review stated: "all [paintings] of the last two years evolve out of the brilliant palette knife work." "The Visitor" is composed in sweeping, flame-like areas that seem to emanate from the center of the painting and reflect the artist's ongoing adaptation of a circular motif during these years. It is most closely linked to a work by Gechtoff titled "The Visit," which is a reference to Frederich Dürrenmatt's tragic-comedic existentialist play of the same title. The artist was fascinated by the notion of the female mythic figure at the time, and while neither painting is a visual representation of the female character, both can be seen within the larger context of a metaphorical representation.