The remarkable case of Johannes Torrentius (1) – Life

Johannes Torrentius (1589-1644) was a painter with a reputation as a “seducer of burghers, a deceiver of the people, a plague on the youth, a violator of women, a squanderer of his own and other’s money”. Moreover, his paintings, according to his own statements, were painted “with other paints than all other painters”, indeed, he claimed that his art was sheer magic: “it is not me who paints …”. His eccentricity and incaution led to imprisonment, cruel torture and even condemnation to the stake. His paintings were believed to have been wilfully destroyed at the time of his conviction. Only one has survived but it was not rediscovered until the previous century.

The notion that Torrentius may have been a Rosicrucian has led some recent authors to interpret historical facts in this light.  Even a recent dissertation (G.H. Snoek, 2007), inventarising the early 17th century documents on the movement in the Dutch Republic, has not been able to provide conclusive proof. But contemporary accounts, too, must be interpreted with caution. In the next post Torrentius’ art, his possible use of the camera obscura, “magic paint” and more: here I will discuss the facts about his extraordinary life and conviction.

Amsterdam

Johannes Torrentius at the time of his conviction, print by Jan van de Velde (II), 1628, Rijksmuseum

Jan Simonsz van der Beeck was born in Amsterdam into a Catholic family in 1589. He would adopt the name “Torrentius” from the Latin “torrens”, a translation of the Dutch word “beeck” (brook). In 1596 his father had the doubtful honour to be the very first inhabitant of the newly built prison on Heiligeweg. He at some point left the city or was forced to leave since he was recorded as living in Cologne in 1627, ironically the year of his son’s arrest. Johannes lived with his mother Symontgen on Breestraat near Nieuwmarkt in the house of her brother Elbert.

Nieuwmarkt, Amsterdam, ca. 1780, Isaac Ouwater, Amsterdam Museum

Nothing has so far been discovered about Torrentius’ artistic training. During his trial he merely states that he is a painter by profession and has practised his art from an early age. In 1609 he received a commission for an altarpiece from the prior of the Dominicans or Predikheren in the then still predominantly catholic city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Torrentius, according to the testimony of one Vrouwtgen Dircx, promised that his painting would be better than the altarpiece of Our Lady in the town’s cathedral and that connoisseurs would deem it worth “at least 300 guilders”. The painting is lost, possibly it was never painted, but the story illustrates a typical trait that would repeatedly contribute to his troubles: modesty was not in his character.

According to Dudok van Heel Torrentius went to Spain as a young man and upon his return had abandoned the Catholic faith which does not seem to have been replaced by Protestantism. On 14 January 1612 the bans were read on his marriage with 22-year-old Neeltgen van Camp.

Signature of Johannes van der Beeck and Neeltgen van Camp, 1612, from Bredius, 1909

It was not to be a happy marriage. and the couple separated a few years later. In 1621, Torrentius failed to pay alimony and was briefly sent to prison (a notarial document dated 21 May 1621 mentions that he is “these days in prison in Amsterdam”). Upon his release he moved to Haarlem where he stayed in the house of a friend, the wealthy merchant Christiaen Coppens, on Zijlstraat while maintaining a separate studio.

Conspicuous behaviour

Torrentius’ painting career was successful and his wealth as well as his flamboyance began to attract followers. He was reputedly a handsome man, always dressed in rich satins and silks, groomed to perfection and he spoke with a somewhat posh accent. Not only did he attract male followers, but women were drawn to him like a magnet, many “to the chagrin of their husbands”. Constantijn Huygens, who had met the painter, wonders about the Torrentius phenomenon in his unpublished Memoires of my Youth (begun 1629):

… he has turned the heads of the sect that had formed around him to such a degree that they came to consider his vices as virtues and enveloped his godlessness in a kind of religious cult and adoration.

The intolerant Republic

Satirical print on the Synod of Dordrecht, Simon Goulartius, 1619. Goulartis was a Remonstrant preacher who was ousted from his function in 1619. In the print nearly all the delegates wear devil’s or bull’s horns.

While the war against Spanish catholic dominance was ever present during the first decades of the 17th century, ideological differences between the conservative Dutch Calvinist Protestant minority on the one hand and the Remonstrants and libertines on the other nearly led to civil war in 1617/18. The Calvinists or Counter-Remonstrants achieved a Phyrric victory at the Synod of Dordrecht in 1619. As a result Remonstrants, like the catholics before them, were prohibited from publicly holding religious services; if caught, they were severely fined. In this repressive climate one would do best to behave inconspicuously but that was not in Torrentius’ nature. “What is God, do you know God, did you see him, what kind of little thing is God?”, he is reported to have said. When even the moderate Remonstrants had to keep their mouths shut, a free-thinker like Torrentius had no chance at all.

Trial and conviction

As early as 1621 the Haarlem magistrates had consulted the church council about the painter and in 1625 they turned to theologians at Leiden University for advice. On 29 June of that year the Court of Holland in a letter to the Prosecutor, Mayor and Aldermen of Haarlem warns them of the dangers imposed by Rosicrucian sect (secte den Roose Cruce) and of “one Torrentius, who is said to be one of the principal members of the aforesaid sect.” Apparently the allegation was based on hearsay. In his own time, too, there was no definite proof linking him with a “secret society”.

Print marked

Print marked “Torrentius fec” today attr. to Pieter Quast (1605-47), possibly a copy or parody of a work by Torrentius, Rijksmuseum

It is perhaps not surprising that, openly flaunting his critical attitude towards the Bible and Calvinist preachers, Torrentius was finally arrested on 29 August 1627. Moreover, most of his paintings were considered to be pornographic and several of them were confiscated by the Haarlem magistrates and exhibited in the city hall before, presumably, most of them were destroyed. In the State Papers of Charles I, an admirer of his work, is a curious entry marked “A note of Torrentius pictures, 1629, at Liss [Lisse] and Harlem”: “His other bawdye pictures such as his friends saye he intended should never be seen are to be seen in the town house at Harlem.”

It turns out that Torrentius’ main detractors were two Dutch reformed ministers, Henricus Geesteranus and Dyonisius Spranckhuysen, who remained behind the scenes and incited others to testify against the artist. Called to testify, Roeland Clarenbeecq, host of the Haarlem inn De Vergulde Valck remained silent when asked “whether Torrentius drank the devil’s health and in what company.” Lambrecht Maertensz. Schapenburg and his wife, who ran an inn in Delft, testified against Torrentius but afterwards stated that two preachers, later identified as Gideon Sonnevelt and Henricus van Linden, known as the “scourge of the Remonstrants”, had visited them with a letter specifying what they should say in court.

Torrentius was interrogated five times but he would not confess and so he was tortured to loosen his tongue – to no avail.

His shinbones were first clamped in irons. Then his hands were tied behind his back and he was hung on his arms with several weights pulling at his feet. Next the executioner and his assistant pulled his legs with all their might. This not being enough, two other men were called in to assist in pulling till his limbs would separate. (Samuel Ampzing, in: Description and Praise of the City of Haarlem, 1628)

View of the Town Hall on Market Square, Haarlem, Cornelis Beelt, c. 1640, Frans Hals Museum. The Town Hall functioned as administrative center and as courthouse

A letter from Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik dated 13 January on Torrentius’ behalf had no effect and on 25 January 1628 Torrentius, paralysed, was carried on pillows into the courtroom to hear the verdict. His lawyer, Reinout Schoorel, pleaded in his defence, but was told that Torrentius would be sentenced extra ordinaris because of the heinousness of his crimes, meaning that he would not be able to defend himself or appeal against the verdict. The advice of five lawyers from The Hague, sought by the Haarlem magistrates, corroborated this.

No attention was given to the counter statements of defence witnesses, among which the distinguished Nicolaes van der Laen, former Mayor of Haarlem. Torrentius was convicted on thirty-one counts, because of “his godlessness, abominable and horrifying blasphemy, and also for terrible and very harmful heresy” and had to pay legal costs. The Prosecutor demanded death at the stake but this was overthrown by the city council and commuted to twenty years imprisonment. Torrentius was thirty-nine years old; with abominable prison conditions at the time this constituted more or less a life sentence.

The medieval dungeons below Haarlem’s Town Hall

Torrentius did not remain passive. He sent a request to the Court of Holland stating in no uncertain terms that he had been rigorously tortured on account of the false testimony of “an innkeeper and his wife from Delft”, (the Schapenburgs), his injuries still being so severe that he “still cannot move [my] limbs”. He complained about the injustice of the extra ordinaris proceedings whereby all means of defence were taken away from him. This, he stated, was a “violation of all justice, reasonableness and fairness”. The reply was a simple “nihil”. Undeterred, Torrentius sent a request to the Supreme Court, the highest legal authority, but again the reply was “nihil“.

Frederik Hendrik by Gerard van Honthorst, 1631, private collection

Only one road was open now: Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik who had already appealed on the painter’s behalf. In a letter to the Prince Torrentius again invoked his invalidity resulting from the cruel torture. The Prince acted immediately, asking the Haarlem authorities whether Torrentius could not be housed elsewhere so that he could practice his art. It took the Haarlem magistrates months to respond. Torrentius exaggerated, they wrote: he was regularly seen by a good doctor and an excellent surgeon and his friends took delicate spices and food, clean linen and woollen clothing to him. He would be allowed to paint, they said, should he have expressed the desire – but he had not. They added that to allow him to live elsewhere would, since he could not be trusted not to propagate his heresies and corrupt the city’s youth, endanger the good Christian citizens of Haarlem.

An interesting event occurred on 29 January 1629: the painters Frans Hals, Pieter Molijn and Johan van de Velde were requested by the magistrates to inspect the cell where Torrentius was held captive and to report on the possibilities to paint there. Alas, the report is now lost.

Johannes Wtenbogaert, 1633, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum

Johannes Wtenbogaert, 1633, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum

The case had created a stir among Remonstrants who had themselves been persecuted. Preacher Johannes Wtenbogaert wrote to the Remonstrant scholar Hugo de Groot who had escaped and fled abroad: “In the country there is much talk about a Torrentius.” Torrentius himself was not without influential and learned friends. Petrus Scriverius, Haarlem writer and scholar, who had himself been fined several times on account of his Remonstrantism, visited Torrentius in prison on 29 March 1629. On that occasion Torrentius wrote a poem in Scriverius’ Album Amicorum.

Release

Dudley Carlton by Michiel van Mierevelt, c. 1620, National Portrait Gallery

Torrentius and his troubles were the subject of correspondence between English diplomat to the Netherlands Dudley Carleton, who also acted as an art agent, and Charles I. The latter wrote to Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik who in turn appealed once more to the Haarlem magistrates. They responded stating that, although they had encouraged him several times to paint, Torrentius had so far not done so, indicating that to release him so that he could paint again was no valid reason, even if the English had vowed they would be responsible for his conduct. The Haarlem authorities must have given in eventually because a letter from Carleton to the Secretary of State in December 1630 speaks of Torrentius going to England with certain pictures for sale. These in all likelihood were the paintings Torrentius’ friend Van der Laen had kept safe in his country house in Lisse during the painter’s incarceration.

Several paintings by Torrentius are mentioned in Charles I’s inventory but not a trace of them has been found nor any trace of the artist’s life in England. In fact, nothing is known other than a brief general description of the painter’s life by Horace Walpole in Anecdotes of Painting in England, vol. 2 (1826), ending with the somewhat cryptic remark that “giving more scandal than satisfaction, he returned to Amsterdam.”

Why Torrentius left England in 1642 is unclear. One possibility could be the outbreak of the English Civil War which would eventually lead to the beheading of his patron. It remains odd that he chose to return to a country that had essentially banished him. And indeed it did not last long before Torrentius was imprisoned yet again, this time in Amsterdam, on the old charges. His incarceration was brief this time, perhaps because he was ill. He returned to his mother’s house where he died, some say of syphilis. On 7 February 1644 he was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), which is remarkable for someone considered to be a heretic, a blasphemer and a devil worshipper.

Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, Jan Veenhuysen, 1665, Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Was Torrentius a Rosicrucian? One cannot exclude it, but there is, so far, no concrete evidence. In all likelihood there was no organised Rosicrucianism in the early 17th century Republic but rather a libertine subculture that was considered dangerous by the newly established Dutch Reformed Church and therefore by the State at a time when religion and politics were inextricably entwined. After all, Torrentius had followers, although Huygens describes the clan around the painter as “dim-witted” and credulous. But the authorities, so soon after closely avoiding civil war, could not afford to take risks. The painter behaved much like a modern pop star and deliberately provoked, loved his wealth and flaunted it at a time when modesty was deemed not only a religious virtue but a duty. Not being a poorter (citizen) of Haarlem, he became an easy target to make an example of to hold up to other free-thinkers in the city.

Selected literature:

  1. Leyds-veer-schuyts-praetgen tusschen een koopman ende borgher van Leyden (etc.), 1628, a popular pamphlet in verse about the case, contains amongst others, the defence plea by sollicitor R. Schoorel.
  2. T. Schrevelius (1645 and 1648) and S. Ampzing’s (1628) Descriptions of the city of Haarlem contain chapters on the case.
  3. Constantijn Huygens, Mijn Jeugd (Memoires of my Youth), written in Latin, was begun in 1629 and abandoned two years later. Intended by Huygens for private circulation, the manuscript was not published until 1897. I have used the 1987 translation by C.L. Heesakkers.
  4. Most court documents and correspondence are quoted in Abraham Bredius, Johannes Torrentius: Schilder, 1909 and, by the same author, “Torrentius: een nalezing”, in Oud Holland, 1917.
  5. A.J. Rehorst, Torrentius, 1939, is devoted to proving Torrentius’ Rosicrucianism.
  6. S.A.C. Dudok van Heel, De jonge Rembrandt onder tijdgenoten: godsdienst en schilderkunst in Leiden en Amsterdam, dissertation, 2006.
  7. G. Snoek, De Rozekruisers in Nederland, dissertation, 2007.

The silent world of Michael Sweerts (2)

Michael Sweerts’ life is shrouded in an infrequently interrupted silence. Documentary evidence is scarce and he left no letters or even signed documents that we know of. We catch glimpses of him in Brussels, Rome, Amsterdam, Marseilles, Persia and finally Goa but he must have traveled more than this for it is recorded that he spoke seven languages. A fragmentary life can be reconstructed to some degree, but the gaps have given rise to speculations about Sweerts’ character: a religious fanatic, a homosexual, a loner, a “tormented soul”. How are we to interpret the few archival documents and do his paintings provide any clues?

The mysteries start early: we know that Michael Sweerts was baptised in the catholic church of St Nicholas in Brussels as the son of David Sweerts, a merchant, and Martynken Balliel on 29 September 1618. Other than that, nothing is known about his early years or about his artistic training and as far as I know no paintings from his early Brussels years survive.

Rome: Cavaliere Sweerts

Via Margutta today

Via Margutta today

It is not until 1646 that we catch up with him. Michael Sweerts, 28 year old, is recorded as living in the parish of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome in Via Margutta where he shared lodgings with several other Northerners. A colourful neighbourhood where artists, prostitutes, beggars and foreigners mingled. In that same year, he is also recorded in the archives of the Accademia di San Luca, the painter’s academy, as being charged with collecting contributions for the feast of St Luke from other Northern artists living in Rome.

No documents survive to prove that Sweerts was either a member of the Bamboccianti, a group of Northern painters living in Rome, or of the Accademia di San Luca (the painters’ academy) but to conclude that Sweerts was therefore a loner or that his apparent involvement with both movements, one concentrating on “low subjects”, the other on elevated ideals, means that as a painter and as a person Sweerts was conflicted has no foundation.

On the contrary, far from being a loner and a sad figure, Sweerts had an important patron in Rome: Prince Camillo Pamphilj (1622-66), a nephew of Pope Innocent X, who renounced his cardinalate to marry the woman he loved in the year when Sweerts is first recorded in Rome. Camillo owned at least four paintings by Sweerts and his accounts show that the artist also painted theatrical decors for him and served as his agent in purchasing art. It was presumably Camillo who secured a papal knighthood for the painter who is referred to in several contemporary documents as”Cavaliere Sweerts”.

Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

It is not inconceivable that Sweerts painted Plague in an Ancient City (1650) for Camillo. It is his most ambitious classical work and it is heavily indebted to Nicholas Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod (ca. 1630-1) which he could have seen in Rome. Unlike the intellectual Poussin, Sweerts did not have a specific plague in mind. Rome at the time was suffering under a financial depression, frequent plague epidemics and famine. In his Plague in an Ancient City, Sweerts depicts these very real horrors within a timeless classical setting. If one realises that a particularly fierce plague epidemic struck Rome while Sweerts lived there and that there was a chronic shortage of bread, the staple food of the poor, it becomes easier to understand the compassion so apparent in Sweerts’ paintings.

Feeding the hungry, credit: Rijksmuseum

“Feeding the hungry”, ca. 1646-9, credit: Rijksmuseum

Rome: Northern patrons

The five Deutz brothers, by Barent Graat, 1658, private collection

The five Deutz brothers, by Barent Graat, 1658, private collection

In Rome, Sweerts also attracted wealthy Northern clients. Some of these were spending part of their Grand Tour there, some were there for trade and some, like three of the five Deutz brothers from Amsterdam, were in Rome for both purposes. Not only did Sweerts paint for the brothers, but he also acted as their agent in purchasing and shipping paintings, frames and classical sculptures while a 1651 power of attorney shows that Jean Deutz employed Sweerts in connection with a shipment of silk.

Joseph Deutz, whose unconventional portrait Sweerts painted in Rome, seems to have been Sweerts’ greatest admirer among the brothers. In his house on Herengracht (today no. 450) a considerable number of paintings by Michael Sweerts hung in the grand “purple drawing-room”, among which a series depicting the Seven Acts of Mercy, which included Feeding the Hungry (above) and Clothing the Naked (below).

Joseph Deutz, ca. 1648-9, Rijksmuseum

Joseph Deutz, ca. 1648-9, Rijksmuseum

For me, the Seven Acts of Mercy series (ca. 1646-9) represents most of what Sweerts stands for: the silence, the frozen movement almost like a film still, the dreamlike setting with its beautiful skies, the compassion and empathy with the subjects’ suffering and the charitable acts performed on them with which Sweerts seems to have identified. They are among his most moving works.

Clothing the Naked, credit: Rijksmuseum

Clothing the Naked. Credit: Rijksmuseum

Sweerts,_Michael_-1649-_-_Wrestling_MatchFar from being a depressed loner then, Michael Sweerts seems to have had a varied and successful career in Rome and even a following for various early copies of his Roman paintings survive. That his painting of a Roman wrestling match as well as later paintings of young men bathing show that Sweerts was a homosexual and added proof of his “inner turmoil” is, I believe, a misconception. Until the 19th century it was unacceptable for women to be painted nude outside of the context of a mythological setting. For men it was different. One cannot exclude homosexuality, but one cannot exclude heterosexuality either – there simply isn’t any concrete evidence. Instead, the paintings of nude young men show Sweerts’ preoccupation with classical Roman sculpture that we already noticed in my previous post.

Brussels – the Sweerts Academy

Credit: Rijksmuseum

Credit: Rijksmuseum

By July 1655 Michael Sweerts was back in Brussels but why he left Rome is unclear. A letter to the Brussels authorities written on 26 February 1656 by Willem van der Borcht, a notary public and playwright, requests the exemption of certain taxes for “Cavaliere Sweerts” on the grounds that the painter founded an “academy of drawing”. The purpose of this academy, so the letter tells us, was to train tapestry designers with the aim to restore tapestry manufacturing “to its old lustre”. For his academy Michael Sweerts produced a limited series of etchings of heads for the benefit of “the young and others”. The etchings may have had a dual purpose: not only did they serve as models for the academy’s students, but because they were cheap and easy to reproduce they would have served as advertisements of Sweerts’ art. Several are etchings after (details of) his own paintings. The theme of education and training seems another recurrent one in Sweerts’ life: his academy but also several artist’s studios that he painted over the years testify to this.

Left: Museum Gouda (detail) of "A Woman Spinning". Right: Rijksmuseum

Left: Museum Gouda (detail) of “A Woman Spinning”. Right: Rijksmuseum

In the north, Sweerts’ painting style changed. It became softer, more lyrical and achieved a felicitous compromise between realism and idealism, most apparent in several enchanting portraits of young boys. These all follow a similar pattern: the boys turn their heads sideways, looking at something outside of the painting. Again, Sweerts’ approach is different from that of most of his contemporaries: he never patronises his young models. They are neither dressed up dolls nor miniature adults but they are portrayed sympathetically and with respect for their personalities. The most charming of these portraits is that of a young boy painted ca. 1655-6.

sweerts_hat

Credit: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

Amsterdam and beyond

Self-Portrait-1658-60-xx-Michael-Sweerts

Credit: Oberlin College

Did Michael Sweerts leave Brussels because his academy was a failure? Again, there is no proof of this. Rather, he seems to have felt attracted to the Société des Missions Etrangères, a lay religious movement that solicited members for missions to the Far East in 1659 and 1660. Sweerts was selected for a mission to China. His farewell from Brussels seems determined and definite, he seems to have been committed to this new life for he gave the painters guild of St Luke a self-portrait “to remember him by” as the guild records specify. Most likely it is this self-confident, proud depiction of himself as a painter which gives no hint of failure: quite the contrary.

Sweerts moved to Amsterdam, where he is recorded living in July 1661, ostensibly to assist another lay member of the Société in supervising the construction of the missionaries’ ship. Here he probably reacquainted himself with the Deutz family: he painted at least the portrait of Gideon Deutz while living in the city.

Around this time we catch the first glimpses of what has been called Sweerts’ “religious fanaticism”. In diaries kept by missionary Nicholas Etienne we find descriptions of Sweerts visiting the churches and the poor of Amsterdam. He is fasting, sleeping on a hard floor and many “beautiful secrets” are communicated to him “from the cross”. But this kind of behaviour was very much in keeping with the religious devotion the movement was interested in propagating and the account may have been exaggerated. While there is no doubt that Sweerts took the mission very seriously he seems not only to have been selected for the mission on account of his religious fervour but also because he was “knowledgeable in some excellent art such as (…) painting” as the 1659 tract phrases it.

A Harbour Scene, Musée du Louvre

Harbour Scene, Musée du Louvre

The mission, consisting of seven priests, two lay brothers and their leader Bishop Pallu, set sail for Palestine on the first leg of the journey to China on 2 January 1662. The journey was a hazardous and difficult one: four mission members died. It seems to have been on board ship that Sweerts started to display erratic behaviour. He became argumentative and difficult to handle and in the end Bishop Pallu decided to dismiss him, telling him that his “painting could indeed be of service” but that his “actions interfered with the general wellbeing”. Pallu writes from Tabriz in Persia in July 1662:

“Our good Mr Svers is not the master of his own mind. I do not think that the mission was the right place for him, nor he the right man for the mission. (…) Everything has been terminated in an amiable fashion on both sides.”

And so Michael Sweerts and the missionaries parted company.

Orientals

Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum

Whatever may have occurred, Sweerts continued to paint on the journey east. He painted a portrait of Bishop Pallu (now lost) in Marseilles which Pallu thought “admirably well done”. A curious small panel, just 21.7×17.8 cm, is thought to have been painted in Persia, although the costumes in part seem to be fantasy ones. Could these men be members of the expedition and is the man in red leaning on the railing of their ship?

Opnamedatum: 22-10-2012

Credit: Rijksmuseum

None of Sweerts’ religious paintings have survived, although several are mentioned in contemporary inventories. Sweerts himself made an etching after his painting of a Lamentation which is unusual for the Virgin’s comforting gesture towards the inconsolable Mary Magdalene. But religion is a multi-faceted concept. What to think of the Seven Acts of Mercy, based, after all, on Matthew XXV: 35-36. Or what to think of an enigmatic and haunting painting in the Metropolitan Museum, now entitled Clothing the Naked but with unmistakable New Testament overtones?

sweerts_clothing_the_naked_mma_7b

Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

After Pallu’s intervention in whatever conflicts had arisen, Sweerts traveled on to Goa on the Indian peninsula alone, possibly to join the Portuguese Jesuits there. The Société records that he died there in 1664, at the early age of 46. The cause of his death is not given.

A life shrouded in silence and mystery

Alfred Bader Collection, 1968

Alfred Bader Collection, 1968

We leave Michael Sweerts for now with a painting of a man with a skull, thought to be a self-portrait. When Alfred Bader acquired the painting in 1968, the skull had been painted out. A previous owner obviously thought it too crude, but the skull’s omission left the man’s pointing finger without aim or purpose. This is a theatrical painting and although it was not unusual for 17th century painters to portray themselves with a skull, Sweerts takes it a step further: the man does not only point at it but inserts his finger in the nasal cavity, giving the painting a dramatic tension and mystery that lends an unusual twist to such a time-honoured vanitas symbol.

Michael Sweerts looks straight at us while he emphatically draws our attention to the skull. We are torn between it and his intense gaze. It makes us feel somewhat uncomfortable but at the same time it intrigues and pulls us irrevocably into the painting. He opens his mouth as if to speak to us but we hear no sound. Here, as in his life, Sweerts’ silent world is in the mystery that we are left to interpret by ourselves.

Michael Sweerts, hô et crâne

Ca. 1660, Dr. and Mrs. Alfred Bader, Milwaukee

Notes:

  1. All works by Michael Sweerts unless stated otherwise.
  2. The Bamboccianti group of Northern painters in Rome were named after the nickname of one of the leading figures, Pieter van Laer. He was called Bamboccio, which meant something like “ugly puppet”. In Dutch they were called the Bentvueghels, which is a 17th century expression meaning “birds of a feather”.
  3. I am indebted to J. Bikker’s article on Michael Sweerts and the Deutz brothers in Simiolus, XXVI, 1998, to I.H. van Eeghen’s Amsterdam archival research published in Amstelodamum (several articles dating 1960 through 1975) and to the 1958 and 2002 Catalogues of the Michael Sweerts exhibitions held in Rotterdam and Amsterdam respectively.