Michael Sweerts on the art market (1)

Following my two posts about the Flemish painter Michael Sweerts (1618-1664) (filed under 17th century) I felt I have to add another since several paintings have recently come on the art market that have been attributed to him. Do they give us a new understanding of Sweerts’ work or do they confirm the image we already have formed of him as a painter? Attributions, particularly when significant amounts of money are at stake are sometimes difficult to accept when matters such as a painting’s condition have to be considered.

With Michael Sweerts, the factors at play are various. He rarely signed his paintings and it is not known if he had pupils even though he himself was much preoccupied with artist’s studios or artists observed at work as well as with education in general as we have seen. His painting school in Brussels trained artists to work as designers for the Brussels tapestry industry; to copy the work of the master in order to learn to paint in his style as in Rembrandt’s case would not have been a consideration.

ca. 1646-50, oil on canvas, 74.5x98 cm, Galleria dell' Academia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome

ca. 1646-50, oil on canvas, 74.5×98 cm, Galleria dell’ Academia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome

When contemporary copies of Sweerts works turn up on the market, it is difficult to say whether these are by Sweerts himself, by pupils, followers or were ordered by clients because they liked the original as in the case of his painting of a man and a woman in the Italian campania who, perhaps going out for an evening stroll, come upon a group of shepherds and stop to talk with them. At least four early copies of this particular painting have surfaced. One of them turned up at auction quite recently. Although attributed to Sweerts, one clearly sees the difference in handling of the figures, they are rather wooden when compared with the original. The attribution is far too optimistic.

Copy? Paris auction 9 June 2012.

Contemporary copy, Paris auction 9 June 2012.

ca. 1648-9, 97x73.6 cm, Dallas Museum of Art

ca. 1648-9, 97×73.6 cm, Dallas Museum of Art

How difficult attributions of Michael Sweert’s paintings can be is illustrated by the case of a fine portrait of a man that ended up in the collection of the Saint Louis businessman Clarence Hoblitzelle in 1912. Attributed to Karel Du Jardin, it and other paintings remained in storage until Hoblitzelle gave them to his brother Karl who loaned them to the Dallas Museum of Art in 1937 where they were cleaned and examined. There it was felt that “the portrait of the aristocratic gentleman in the golden sash would seem to have been painted in Velasquez’s second period, for there is about it that serene detachment for which his later work is famous.” The attribution shift from Du Jardin to Velázquez appears to have been due to the restorer and was almost immediately doubted but it wasn’t until 1952 that the painting was given to Sweerts. Today it is thought to depict one of the Deutz brothers following the discovery of the Journal of their mother who mentions that three of the five brothers were portrayed by Sweerts during their Grand Tour in Rome.

In 2010 an astonishing portrait came up for auction at Sotheby’s where it was bought for USD 842,500 by London art dealer Johnny van Haeften. A staggering amount given the estimate of USD 100,000-150,000. Quite possibly, the low estimate was influenced by the painting’s condition: the extremely yellowed varnish made it difficult to see the superb handling of the brushwork, particularly in the sitter’s costume details.

Credit: Sotheby's

Credit: Sotheby’s

Only a few months after the auction, Van Haeften presented the painting, cleaned, at the international arts and antiques fair TEFAF in Maastricht with an asking price of USD 1,1 million. The difference between the Sotheby’s photo and the cleaned painting which, according to Sotheby’s condition report, was otherwise in excellent condition is surely astonishing although, if the photographs are to be trusted, the treatment the painting received has caused losses, for instance in the fine lace on the man’s collar.


Credit: Wallace Collection

Credit: Wallace Collection

Is this portrait by Michael Sweerts? It does bear a resemblance to the Dallas portrait above and a small portrait on copper in the Wallace Collection. They have in common the attention to detail in the costume and the handling of the paint in these passages: a less smooth finish with gobs of colour mixed with white pigment dabbed onto the canvas. Added to that is the pose with the head turned three-quarters to the left, gazing into the distance which Sweerts also used for other than portrait subjects such as in his engaging genre paintings of young boys. The head of the sitter in the TEFAF portrait is modeled with great subtlety. Eyes and nose are painted with liquid highlights, again as in other known portraits by Sweerts.

ca. 1659, oil on unlined canvas, 47.5x39.2 cm

ca. 1659, oil on unlined canvas, 47.5×39.2 cm, private collection

We find the same pose in a portrait of a boy which turned up at Christie’s in 1997. He is older than Sweerts’ previous models, more an adolescent. But here there are variations in the paint handling that are a-typical. The portrait is broadly painted with extremely thin pigment. The brushwork is remarkably free and the landscape is brushed in almost like watercolour. It is considered an unfinished work that therefore lacks the refinement of other portraits, but nevertheless that particular sensitivity towards his subjects that is so typical of Sweerts is there. This portrait seems a synthesis between Sweerts’ enchanting young boy portraits and the restlessness of his Self-portrait with a skull that we saw in a previous post. The landscape and the peculiar treatment of light falling on the figures are also reminiscent of that portrait.

Paris, Galerie Canesso

Paris, Galerie Canesso

In 2006, a painting was offered by the Canesso Gallery in Paris of a youth who bears a remarkable resemblance to the above adolescent, perhaps it is even the same model but slightly older? He is shown blowing a hunting horn which might indicate that the painting is meant to be an allegory of hearing. Although he again looks away from us, he nevertheless captivates in that typical Sweertsian manner where there is such an obvious relationship between the model and the painter. The brush plays with chiaroscuro, contrasting marked shadows with pure bursts of reflected light, particularly on the horn. If painted by a follower, it must be an excellent painter in his own right and one who observed Sweerts at close hand. For now, the painting remains attributed to the master.

Lindsay Fine Art Gallery

105 x 83cm, Lindsay Fine Art Gallery


Men Bathing, 1655, 109×164 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Stasbourg

If the painting of the Baptism of Christ currently offered by the Lindsay Art Gallery is by Michael Sweerts, we are looking at his only surviving religious painting which in itself makes this work unique. The painting has been dated between 1656 and 1659 which means that it must have been painted in Brussels. The landscape, reminiscent of that in Sweerts’ paintings of bathers in Strasbourg and Hannover, is a Northern landscape, bathed in early morning light. Interestingly, Sweerts uses the same model for both figures: John in an active and Christ in a passive role. A fascinating psychological concept which I have never seen before in paintings of this subject. They are as it were each other’s psychological mirror image which makes this an emotional and at the same time deeply introspective rendering of the story of the baptism.

If this painting is by Michael Sweerts it may be connected with his leaving Brussels to join the Société des Missions Etrangères as an artist and lay brother which must have been a dramatic change in his life. It was a commitment to a new calling as poignantly significant as Christ’s baptism was and one wonders in how far this image of a moment of dramatic but also humbling change and acceptance had biographical significance for Michael Sweerts at this crucial point in his life.

Until recently the Baptism was in a Swedish private collection and only known from an old black and white photograph. Much overpainted, it was hard for experts to accept as authentic. It has recently been cleaned, restored and studied and is believed – by the gallery at least – to be “an outstanding work from Sweerts maturity”. I would like it to be.


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.


Credit: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

Amsterdam and beyond


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.


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?


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


  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.

The silent world of Michael Sweerts (1)

Vermeer’s oeuvre was rediscovered just prior to that of another artist: Michael Sweerts (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.

An Artist's Studio, signed and dated 1652, Detroit institute of arts

“An Artist’s Studio”, 73.5×58.8 cm, signed and dated 1652, Detroit Institute of arts

168460_182665328422559_7304194_nPainted 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.

ImageSo 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.


Photo: Rijksmuseum

Photo: Rijksmuseum

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.

The Schoolroom

“The Schoolroom”, 89.5×114 cm, ca. 1650, The Trustees of the Berkeley Will Trust, Berkeley Castle

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.

Fondation UNICEF, Cologne

Fondation UNICEF, Cologne


Juno Ludovisi

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.

61x53.5 cm, Fondation Aetas Aurea

61×53.5 cm, Fondation Aetas Aurea

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.

Photo: Mauritshuis, The Hague

Photo: Mauritshuis, The Hague

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.