Meijer de Haan was born on 15 April 1852, in the heart of the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. He came from a wealthy background, as his maternal grandfather was a rich fabric merchant who owned several residential buildings. Little is known about Meijer's childhood, other than that he grew up as part of a large family: he had two brothers and one sister, all younger than him (an older brother died in 1854), and his parents shared a home with his maternal aunt and his uncle who, themselves, had seven children. Between 1867 and 1872, Meijer de Haan took lessons from P. F. Greive, a minor artist who specialised in picturesque fishing scenes. A few works from this period have come down to us, such as Still life with Lobster and Lemon dated 1872.
The preliminary medical examination for military service gives us a good physical description of the young man in 1871. He was blond, with blue eyes and suffered from "a slight disability". This was certainly his humpback, probably the result of tuberculosis that affected him throughout his life. As he was only 4 feet 11 (1m49) tall, he escaped his military obligations "because of his short stature". Meijer de Haan was therefore able to devote himself to his artistic career, not an easy choice, as, at that time, it was still difficult for Jews to integrate. Thus, he was one of the very few Jews in Amsterdam who wanted to become an artist-painter, but no doubt his action was made easier by his family's financial success.
In 1874, Meijer de Haan was accepted at the National Academy of Fine Art and admitted to the drawing class. As he was taken ill, he only stayed there for a few months, but then carried on working. His paintings still revealed the influence of an education in Greive's studio. De Haan remained isolated from the artistic innovations of the time.
During the 1870s, the De Haan family was affected by a number of major changes. Samuel, Meyer's oldest brother, opened a bakery in 1872. Mietje, their mother, died in 1875, and in 1877 Meijer moved in with Samuel and appeared to take an active part in developing the family bread factory, which assured him a good income. However, he did not abandon painting; on the contrary, he belonged to the eminent artists' society Arti et Amiticiae, of which Greive was both an active member and an administrator. It was through this society that De Haan exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1879 and 1880, and participated regularly in the Triennal for living masters organised in his town.