Born in Haarlem, the son of a Haarlem innkeeper, Van der Helst moved to Amsterdam some time before 1636, for he was married there in that year. His first dated picture, a group portrait of the regents of the Walloon Orphanage (currently the location of Maison Descartes in Amsterdam), dates from 1637. It is unknown from whom he learned to paint, but in Haarlem he must have at least known the work of Frans Hals, who like him, never traveled to Italy and specialized in portraiture. Hals refused even to travel to Amsterdam to paint the lucrative schuttersstukken, and a few years after the trekschuit made commuting to Amsterdam possible in 1632 he attempted this in 1636 with the De Magere Compagnie, but gave it up and let Pieter Codde finish it. As the son of an innkeeper with ever-increasing trekschuit patrons, van der Helst would have seen immediately the importance of this and the relative value of Amsterdam above Haarlem. In any case, he moved to Amsterdam and in 1639 he won his own schutterstuk commission, The company of Captain Roelof Bicker and Lieutenant Jan Michielsz Blaeuw. In Amsterdam he may well have trained with Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy.