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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Michiel Sweerts and Biblical Subjects in Dutch Art

Michiel Sweerts (1618–1664) was a highly accomplished portrait, genre, and history painter between the later 1640s and the early 1660s, years that coincide with the careers of Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jacob Jordaens, and other famous Dutch or Flemish painters of the period. However, one is unlikely to hear of Sweerts in a college course, not even one focused on the Netherlands, because Sweerts worked in at least three different countries and cannot be said to represent the artistic mainstream in any of them. And yet such an international career in Europe may be considered more typical of the 1600s than of any earlier century, as the mere mention of familiar names such as Rubens, Van Dyck, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Ribera, Jan Brueghel, Adam Elsheimer, Gerrit van Honthorst, Hendrick ter Brugghen, numerous Italianate landscapists, and many others will remind us.

Although long thought to be Dutch, Sweerts was baptized as the son of a Catholic merchant in Brussels on September 29, 1618. Nothing is known of his training or any other aspect of his life before 1646, when the twenty-eight-year-old Fleming registered as a resident of the parish of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. He was still in Rome in 1652 and perhaps as late as 1655, when (by July) he was back in Brussels. In April 1656, he received permission to open a life-drawing academy in the court city (in that same year, Juan of Austria, natural son of Philip IV, succeeded Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria as governor of the Spanish Netherlands).

Sweerts had moved to the Dutch Republic by about 1660. He was living in Amsterdam in the summer of 1661, when he was described in the diary of a French Lazarist missionary as pursuing an austere and saintly life, as widely traveled, and as a speaker of several languages. (The Lazarists, named for the priory of Saint-Lazare in Paris, is a congregation of secular priests founded in 1626 by Saint Vincent de Paul.) The central concern of the congregation was service to the poor, which is interesting for the subject of the Museum’s painting Clothing the Naked (1984.459.1), probably painted in Amsterdam in about 1661. Six of the Seven Acts of Mercy (or Charity) were cited by Christ at the Last Judgment, according to Matthew 25:35–36: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (The seventh act, Burying the Dead, was introduced during the late medieval period when plagues were common.)

By the end of 1661, Sweerts was in Marseilles, where he painted a portrait of François Pallu, a founder of the Foreign Missions Society of Paris, who was also Bishop of Heliopolis (Baalbek, Lebanon) and apostolic vicar of Tonkin (Laos) and five provinces in China. In January 1662, the mission left for the Middle East. Little is known about the journey, but several priests died on the trip, and Sweerts behaved badly and was eventually dismissed. Pallu crossed Persia and went overland to India, and then Siam (Thailand) by 1664. In that year, according to mission archives, Sweerts died in Goa, India.

Sweerts’ exceptional gifts as a portraitist were brought to bear on his genre paintings (such as the Museum’s Man Holding a Jug; 2001.613) and history pictures. In Clothing the Naked, the figures are remarkably individualized, quite as the textures of skin, hair, fur, and fabrics are convincingly distinguished, and subtleties of light and atmosphere are wonderfully described. In these qualities, the solemn balance of the composition, and the intensity of vision achieved through bright light and deep shadow, Sweerts’ painting recalls works by Rembrandt of about the same time in Amsterdam.

Like Rembrandt, Sweerts interpreted biblical subjects in the light of his own experience, including, in his remarkable case, similar acts of charity. By the time Sweerts went to Amsterdam, the demand in the Dutch Republic for religious pictures that treated the subjects in realistic and, it might be said, relevant terms was well established, going back to at least the beginning of the century. Among the best known examples are early works by Rembrandt, such as the Tobit and Anna, of 1626 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), but hundreds of analogous works were produced by Rembrandt’s pupils and followers and outside his circle as well.

It is true that the Calvinist churches of the Dutch Republic were opposed to religious imagery. Thus, the formerly Catholic churches (most of them Gothic), which had been taken over by city councils, were largely stripped bare of altarpieces, sculpture, and other “popish” appointments (as seen in Emanuel de Witte’s Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft, of about 1650; 2001.403). However, devotional paintings were preserved or made for the so-called hidden (unobtrusive) Catholic chapels that were established in many cities—the Museum’s extraordinary Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John, of about 1625 (56.228), by Hendrick ter Brugghen, was made for such a church in Utrecht—and a few non-Calvinist Protestant churches (like the small Lutheran Church in Leiden) displayed biblical paintings. Catholic clients also acquired devotional paintings (subjects such as the Crucifixion or the Virgin and Child), usually of modest scale, for their own homes (a good example, if rare in its subject, is the Museum’s Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin, of about 1670, by Rembrandt’s former pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten; 1992.133).

Nonetheless, the great majority of biblical pictures by Dutch painters were intended for Protestant homes. Both Old and New Testament subjects were treated, and they often touched upon themes of personal morality or civic virtue. Biblical stories were also related to modern life by Protestant preachers, and in edifying literature. However, the Dutch institutions that are most strongly brought to mind by Clothing the Naked, and an earlier series of canvases by Sweerts representing all Seven Acts of Mercy, are the charitable hospitals, old people’s homes, and orphanages that were run by the Dutch city governments. Some of the most important public commissions awarded to Dutch painters of the time were for group portraits of the administrators of such charitable institutions, such as Hals’ famous pair of pictures The Regents of the Old Men’s Almshouse and its female counterpart (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem), of about 1664. At first sight, those formal records of upstanding citizens and Clothing the Naked are very different types of picture, but all the figures (not least the destitute one) are compellingly individualized, and they all represent respect and compassion for one’s fellow man.