Published: September 10, 2002
HARTFORD, CONN. – The Flemish painter and printmaker Michael Sweerts is one of the most original, intriguing and accomplished artists of the Seventeenth Century. Like the more famous Vermeer, Sweerts was “rediscovered” in the modern era by art historians, yet he lacks name recognition among the museum-going public.
That may change with “Michael Sweerts, 1618-1664,” the first monographic exhibition devoted to the artist in nearly 50 years — and the first ever in America.
The Rijksmuseum, with its extensive collection of paintings by Sweerts, is a co-organizer of the show with the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, which acquired two major works by Sweerts in the 1940s, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Prior to the Atheneum’s presentation, September 20-December 1, the show ran in Amsterdam, March 8-May 20, then in San Francisco, June 15-August 25.
Thirty-two of Sweerts’s finest paintings and all 21 of his known etchings have been assembled from public and private collections in Europe and America. Lenders include the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; Musee du Louvre, Paris; Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; the Albertina, Vienna; Collection Rau – Fondation UNICEF, Cologne; Galleria dell ‘Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Dallas Museum of Art; Detroit Institute of Arts; and the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin.
Sweerts’s paintings are often described as having mysterious, dramatic power or a deceptive simplicity and candor. Stylistically, he reconciles naturalism with classicism and mediates between the Northern and Italian artistic traditions.
He depicts a variety of humanity and everyday subject matter, from highly individual portraits of children, young adults and the elderly, to unsentimental genre scenes of peasants, beggars, gamblers and artists at work. There are also history paintings, such as the sweeping and compassion-filled “Plague in an Ancient City.” Also in this exhibition are “The Seven Acts of Mercy,” Sweerts’s profound statement of Christian faith. For the first time in some 300 years, these seven paintings (four from the Fijksmuseum, one from the Wadsworth Atheneum, one from the Collection Rau-Fondation UNICEF, Cologne and one from a private collection) will be reunited. Unique, too, is the opportunity to see the rare etchings.
“The ‘Head of a Boy’ by Michael Sweerts is one of our most intriguing paintings — it has an almost hypnotic immediacy. To be able to bring an exhibition of works by a little-known master to our public is an Atheneum trademark, and one of the great joys of working with a collection as distinguished as ours,” said Kate M. Sellers, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Peter C. Sutton (former director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, now executive director of the Bruce Museum), Guido Jansen and Lynn Orr are the exhibition curators. The in-house curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum is Eric M. Zafran, curator of European paintings and sculpture.
Documentation of Sweerts’s peripatetic life is scant and since few of his works are signed or dated, a complete chronology of his work is not possible. (For a long time, pictures by him were attributed to Vermeer, Nicolas Poussin, the Le Nains and Velazquez.) Recent archival discoveries, however, have corrected misconceptions and filled in some of the many blanks.
Long assumed to be Dutch, Sweerts was in fact born in Brussels to a merchant in 1618. There is no evidence of his formative years, but art historians have speculated that Sweerts spent time in France, or possibly the Northern Netherlands, before moving to Italy in the 1640s. Between 1646 and 1652 he was recorded as living in Rome, as did many young Northern artists, where he immersed himself in the study of Caravaggism and Baroque sculpture. In Rome he secured the patronage of the nephew of Pope Innocent X, who knighted him in the early 1650s, and so became known as “Cavaliere Sweerts.”
He returned to Belgium by 1655 and founded a short-lived artist’s academy in Brussels. By 1661 he was in Amsterdam where he had important patrons and was esteemed as both a portrait painter and as a connoisseur. In 1662, Sweerts, a devout Catholic, joined a pilgrimage from France to the Holy Land, but falling out with his companions in Persia, he proceeded to the island of Goa where the Portuguese Jesuits were active. Nothing more is known of him until his death in Goa in 1664.
The accompanying catalog contains essays by Eric M. Zafran (on the growing recognition of Sweerts in the United States), Jonathan Bikker (on Sweerts’s life and career), Lynn Orr (on Sweerts in Rome), and Arie Wallert (a technical analysis). It is published in English by Waanders Uitgevers in Zwolle and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is $49.95, hardbound.
“Michael Sweerts: 1618-1664” was made possible by an anonymous donor. Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Samuel H. Kress Foundation, The Helen M. Saunders Charitable Foundation, Inc, and The Consulate General of The Netherlands in New York.
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 am to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm, and on the first Thursday of most months until 8 pm. Admission will be by timed ticket. For information, 860-278-2670 or visit www.wadsworthatheneum.org
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