Vermeer’s oeuvre was rediscovered just prior to that of another artist:(Brussels, 1618 – Goa, 1664) but unlike Vermeer, Sweerts never managed to capture the hearts of the general public. Yet Sweerts’ paintings offer a world that is immediate and yet strangely aloof, mysterious and yet rooted in reality. It is above all a world of silence. In my next post on Sweerts I will sketch his life in more detail following some archival discoveries, but for now it suffices that, a native of Brussels, he lived an worked in Rome from ca. 1646 until ca. 1655.
Painted in Rome, Michael Sweerts’ “An Artist’s Studio” shows us a fashionably dressed young man who is examining a small statue of a putto which he has picked up from the cluttered display of sculptures on the table. He pays no attention to the youth behind the table who is pointing to a torso, perhaps to indicate that it is by the same sculptor, François Duquesnoy (1597-1643), who was also active in Rome. The assortment of plaster casts is evidently not enough, for a servant approaches from the right, clutching a cloth or apron holding yet more plaster casts.
So far so good: a client visits a studio to select a nice piece for his collection at home. But there is more: the boy behind the table holds a palette and brushes, behind him we see an easel and a library with someone studying is just visible through an open door. The plaster casts are joined by a cittarone, sheet music and instruments for engraving and drawing. What looks at first sight a studio is instead a carefully arranged allegory of all the arts. A trompe l’oeil fly deftly painted on the coat of the visitor adds an element of vanitas, a reminder of the brevity of life. But Sweerts doesn’t bother us with his creed about the arts or of life’s brevity: we are free to take it or to leave it. While there is action in the painting, the overall sense is that of silence, we discern no sound at all.
Sweerts’ palette is limited, mostly various shades of browns, but these contrast sharply with a couple of spots of pure white in each painting such as here in the little pickpocket in a Roman street scene with two card players. The modeling around those white spots is extremely delicate and the structure of fabrics is rendered in such a way that they almost become palpable.
In this painting, generally entitled “The Schoolroom”, our attention is immediately captured by the charming young embroideress whose blue dress and white turban set her off against Sweerts’ usual browns. Beside her is a small boy reading from a book while in the center another charming young woman stands, holding her needlework. Silhouetted in the foreground, a few children warm their hands over a brazier and, difficult to see, a man instructs a girl seated at a keybord on the left, while on the far right a girl writes in a book on her lap with a small child looking on. In the back of the cavernous room is a tall, lighted archway through which we see a Roman courtyard surrounded by buildings and populated by shadowy figures.
A thoughtfully conceived composition, but what does it represent? It is evidently not a sewing school because there are so many different activities going on. Most likely, though by no means certain, this could be an orphanage with children learning to read and write, play music and sew. Here again, in spite of the multiple activities, serenity and silence prevail.
What is also striking is that the people shown here and elsewhere in Sweerts’ Roman paintings are treated with so much respect and that these figures, such as the beautiful little embroideress, are elevated to the dignity and repose associated with classical art. Sweerts’ preference for classical sculpture is visible in the many classical casts he includes in his various artist studio paintings, but he extends this to his street models and adds an element of empathy that makes them appealing and human. It is interesting in this respect that a contemporary copy of this painting by Sweerts or a follower shows the same charming embroideress, but this time the setting is that of an artist’s studio where she is surrounded by classical casts, one of which is the “Juno Ludovisi”. This head is also visible among the casts in the “Artist’s Studio” discussed above.
Sweerts’ empathy shows itself at its most intimate in his portrait of a young servant girl, thought to have been painted after his return to the north, c. 1660.
The handling of light and dark in this painting is superb, with a strong light on the girl’s left side so that the right side of her face is cast in shadow. The red and white brushstrokes on her shoulder emphasise the way in which she turns towards the viewer. We can sense the course material her dress is made of – its plainness is only alleviated by a frill of lace on her collar and four straight pins on her bodice. Sweerts’ apparent empathy for her gives her a timeless quality.
Much has been made of the seeming similarities between this girl and Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” (ca. 1665), suggesting that Vermeer may have known Sweerts’ painting or even Sweerts himself, but to be honest I cannot think of two paintings that are more different, both in painterly treatment and in the way both artists approach their subjects: Vermeer’s girl is tantalising and mysterious, Sweerts’ girl shy and realistically presented as a young member of the 17th century working classes.