Cornelis Bega's mother inherited half the estate of her renowned Mannerist artist father, and Bega's father was a goldsmith and silversmith: such was Bega's prosperous, artistic Haarlem family. He studied with genre painter Adriaen van Ostade, and his early works recall his teacher's dark, freely executed, many-figured subjects, though Bega often showed more psychological insight. From 1653 to 1654 he visited Germany, Switzerland, and France, then returned to Haarlem to join the Guild of Saint Luke. His life was probably cut short by the plague.
Bega's principal subjects were taverns, domestic interiors, and villages, with characters ranging from nursing mothers and prostitutes to gamblers and alchemists. Between about 1660 and 1664, his genre scenes became more colorful, less populated, more emotionally expressive, and more focused on the fine details of object textures. Among those influenced by Bega was Jan Steen. Later European artists imitated Bega's style and borrowed characters from his dramas. Bega also drew, etched, and made counterproofs in a variety of materials.