Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 13, 2003
Duncan Bull, ed. Michael Sweerts, 1618–1664 Waanders, 2002. 192 pp.; 68 color ills.; 159 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9040086761)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, March 9–May 20, 2002; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, June 15–August 25, 2002; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT, September 20–December 1, 2002

History has not been kind to the Brussels-born genre painter and portraitist Michael Sweerts. Despite having enjoyed patrician patronage in Rome and founding one of the earliest academies of art in his native city, Sweerts was disregarded by contemporary chroniclers of painting, and upon his death his name and achievements were quickly forgotten. When at the start of the last century the artist began to interest scholars and modern collectors, he was wrongly taken for Dutch. Later historians lumped him with Pieter van Laer and the Bamboccianti, those disparaged painters of the Italian popolo basso, much to his disadvantage. Before last year, Sweerts’s work had been the focus of only one international exhibition, a show held in two European cities nearly a half century ago. A major monograph with catalogue raisonné did not appear until 1996.

The Curious World of Michael Sweerts (1618–1664), which was called Michael Sweerts, 1618–1664 in the United States, undertook to reverse this record of misunderstanding and neglect. Organized by Guido Jansen, Jonathan Bikker, Duncan Bull, Lynn Federle Orr, and Peter C. Sutton, it gathered about thirty paintings and all twenty-one known prints by the artist, with the combined intentions of introducing Sweerts’s work to a wider public and shedding light upon various scholarly and scientific questions surrounding the artist. The curators achieved both of their objectives—and then some.

Among the highlights of the exhibition, which this reviewer saw in Amsterdam and Hartford, was the happy reunion of seven masterful canvases, each representing one of the Seven Acts of Mercy. Executed in Rome around 1646–49, this long-dispersed suite once decorated a room in the home of Joseph Deutz, an Amsterdam merchant whose family’s business interests Sweerts represented while abroad. As well as any in the show, these absorbing pictures reveal Sweerts’s unique artistic orientation and why we should care about it. Instead of following the Flemish custom of showing pious elites feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and so on, Sweerts represented the standard charities enacted by humble citizens in settings evocative of contemporary Rome. Moreover, the artist broke decisively with past tradition by depicting his essentially didactic theme as a series of mysterious, weighty events, bathed in dramatic chiaroscuro and loaded with allusions to Rome’s heroic, classical past. To be sure, Sweerts’s stolid, lumpy figures and simple urban landscapes, replete with ancient ruins, recall inventions of van Laer and his immediate disciples, but the artist’s emphatic manipulation of light and form endows his pictures with a quiet grandeur and monumentality that sets them in a world apart. Seeing these humble masterpieces together in one room was an eye-opening pleasure, especially in Hartford, where they were given adequate wall space.

Another star of the show, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s moving Plague in an Ancient City of ca. 1650, testified to a contrasting side of Sweerts’s artistic personality. Also produced in Rome, perhaps in collaboration with the architecture painter Viviano Codazzi, this uncharacteristically large-scale cabinet picture depicts a horde of distressed ancients massing on an elegant town square around lifeless bodies, felled by some sudden scourge. The work’s vivid primary colors, rectilinear structure, and conspicuous allusions to ancient sculptural models show Sweerts to have absorbed the central precepts of Roman academic classicism. Indeed, the painter adapted his overall composition and several important figural motifs from Nicolas Poussin’s famous Plague at Ashdod (ca. 1630; Paris, Louvre). Yet characteristically, Sweerts distanced himself from his model, this time by inserting many naturalistically rendered, down-to-earth motifs, such as eye-catching sheaths of straw popping out from below the bed of one of the dying women in the foreground, as well as fanciful, anachronistic elements in the costumes. These curiosities, which derive from the competing aesthetic tradition of his fellow Netherlanders, give Sweerts’s work a disturbingly contemporary aspect and critical edge.

The exhibition also made abundantly clear Sweerts’s prodigious skill as a painter of portraits and of tronies, those heads of anonymous characters made to flaunt their maker’s expressive techniques. Of the several outstanding examples on display, the Hermitage Museum’s Portrait of a Young Man of 1656 received my vote as the portrait most demonstrative of Sweerts’ s independent vision. Adapting conventions exploited earlier by Anthony Van Dyck and Bartholomeus van der Helst, the picture exudes feelings of warmth, intimacy, and dreamy innocence foreign to the works of those distinguished seventeenth-century masters, yet fully in harmony with Sweerts’s overall approach. The commanding Self-Portrait from Oberlin, which hung in Amsterdam and Hartford, possesses a different kind of emotive power. Cool and reserved, it radiates an air of rational confidence that seems to look ahead to the eighteenth century. Among the equally distinguished assemblage of tronies, which Sweerts produced upon his return to the Netherlands in ca. 1652, the Head of an Old Woman from the J. Paul Getty Museum and Hartford’s Boy with a Hat stood out as particularly masterful examples of the genre. Both works display the artist’s capacity to transform plain features, simple glances, and common gestures into art of sublime beauty by means of sensitive illumination and brushwork.

The exhibition catalogue, written by the curators with additional team members, adroitly introduces Sweerts to the museum public while also addressing the interests of specialized scholars. The book opens with an essay by Sutton, placing Sweerts’s artistic production in the context of the artist’s life and times, a wide-ranging synthesis that takes good account of recent scholarship. Sutton’s measured tone and lively, accessible writing style make this introduction a particularly welcome addition to the literature. Of the five specialized studies that follow, Bikker’s piece, reexamining Sweerts’s career in the light of evidence gleaned from Italian and Belgian archives, is the most far reaching. Expanding upon ideas first presented in a 1998 journal article, Bikker challenges the persistent romantic notion that Sweerts was an introverted recluse, while presenting compelling new evidence of the artist’s rapport with wealthy patrons both in the Netherlands and Italy. The essay by conservators Arie Wallert and Willem de Ridder sheds welcome new light on Sweerts’s use of materials and methods during various phases of his career. Eric Zafran’s piece, documenting the collecting of Sweerts’s paintings in America, also breaks important new ground. Both the catalogue of exhibited paintings and the section devoted to Sweerts’s prints are well organized and informative.

Despite the richness of the exhibition and publication, substantial questions remain about Sweerts’s activities and mentality. The catalogue has surprisingly little to say about the artist’s formative years in Brussels. Even if identifying his teachers remains impossible, some more elaborate account of the artistic climate in which Sweerts presumably received his initial training would have been welcome. Likewise, the authors largely sidestep the problem of Sweerts’s reported membership in the Roman Accademia di San Luca. That circumstance might signal an interesting shift in the status of genre painting in Rome at midcentury, a phenomenon germane to Sweerts’s development. The stylistic relationship between Sweerts and disciples of van Laer, such as Johannes Lingelbach and Jan Miel, also deserved greater attention. The exhibition contained almost no comparative material by those painters to help visitors to judge the substance of Sweerts’s contribution to the Bamboccianti tradition.

Most important, despite some useful attention given to the issue in the introduction by Sutton, Sweerts’s views on artistic theory and practice and on the training of young artists require further clarification. Throughout his career, Sweerts produced pictures showing artists at work making art, a category of subject matter well represented in the exhibition. Whatever other functions they may have served, these depictions give voice to sentiments about image making that beg for attention and interpretation. But what principles and precepts do they convey? In an article published more than seventy years ago, probing the plague scene cited above, Roberto Longhi detected “eine gewisse phlegmatische Ironie” in Sweerts’s deliberate and unsanctioned mixing of elements peculiar to the noble, classical tradition with those characteristic of low genre. That irony helps to transform the painting from simple homage into a critique of the classical tradition. Similarly, Sweerts’s paintings of artists at work, which also commonly juxtapose features of high and low, may have aimed at upending standard classical doctrines governing the making of art as much as they may seem to promote them. Solving this and other riddles about the content and significance of Sweerts’s work will be the job of scholars in the years to come.

David A. Levine
Professor of Art History, Art Department, Southern Connecticut State University