Harmen Evertsz. Steenwyck was born in Delft, where he mainly worked. He and his brother Pieter were taught by their uncle, David Bailly, in Leiden. Bailly is often credited with the invention of the type of painting called a vanitas, which emphasises the transience of life and the vanity of worldly wealth. The vanitas was a speciality in Leiden, and Steenwyck became its leading exponent.