This unpublished and previously unknown canvas has instantly been recognised as a signal masterpiece of Michael Sweerts’s art and a highly important addition to the oeuvre of ‘one of the most creative, enigmatic and hauntingly memorable artists of the seventeenth century’ (P. C. Sutton, Michael Sweerts: 1618-1664, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, 2002, p. 11).
Painted in Rome, where Sweerts is documented living in the Via Margutta between 1646 and 1652, this is perhaps his greatest picture on the theme of the artist’s studio, borne out of his own deep interest in education and artistic instruction. Two of his best-known works, also from his Roman period, are on the same subject: the Artist’s Studio in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, datable to circa 1650 (fig. 1), and In the Studio, in the Detroit Institute of Arts, dated 1652 (fig. 2). The present picture may pre-date both works and was likely painted soon after Sweerts’ arrival in Rome, at around the time he was working on the Seven Acts of Mercy series, which are generally dated to 1646-1649. What is all the more remarkable is this picture’s state of preservation, for while Sweerts’ pictures are notoriously vulnerable to restoration and the passage of time, this canvas is unlined and the texture of the paint surface unusually intact beneath age-old layers of dirty varnish.
The composition itself is familiar to us by virtue of a number of versions and copies, the best of which – in the Rau Foundation – has variously been described by scholars as by or after Sweerts (fig. 3), without knowledge of this picture’s existence. Malcolm Waddingham found the Rau picture ‘hard to accept without reservations’ (‘Recently Discovered Paintings by Michael Sweerts’, Apollo, CXVIII, no. 260, 1983, p. 283); Paul Huys Janssen called it a copy (‘I Bamboccianti, Niederländische Malerrebellen im Rom des Barock, 1991’ review, Oud Holland, CVII, no. 3, 1993, p. 312); Rolf Kultzen ventured that he ‘would not like to exclude the possibility of it being an early work by the artist’ (Michael Sweerts, Ghent, 1996, p. 87, no. 1); while Guido Jansen asserted with more confidence that he was ‘convinced the painting is by Sweerts, albeit much repainted’ (Michael Sweerts, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, 2002, p. 99, under no. VII, note 2). The re-emergence of this picture settles the debate and leaves no doubt that this is the lost original, the popularity of which accounts for the number of copies and versions made after it.
In a large artist’s studio, a painter – possibly Sweerts himself – sits at an easel with his back to the viewer, turning in profile to observe his subject – a seamstress, radiantly bathed in light in the left foreground, who forms the focal point of the work. Her sewing basket is at her feet alongside a scrap of paper that proudly bears the artist’s signature (‘Michael Sweerts / Roma.’). Behind her, a studio assistant mixes paints and, on the other side, an open doorway leads into a separate room where another artist can be seen working at an easel before a window. A painting, as yet unidentified, hangs above the doorway. The right foreground is dominated by a mass of contemporary and antique sculpture, haphazardly arranged on a table and the floor. A young artist in a yellow coat, seated on a stool in the corner, his porte crayon at his feet, leans forward and gazes at the seamstress, anchoring the composition on the right. Behind him, a group of becloaked figures enter through a dimly lit doorway, including a figure playing a lute and a liefhebber, or ‘art lover’, described by Lara Yeager-Crasselt as ‘a well-recognized figure in the artistic culture of the seventeenth-century Netherlands, functioning as a patron, collector, connoisseur, and an amateur practitioner of the arts’ (‘Knowledge and practice pictured in the artist’s studio: The ‘art lover’ in the seventeenth-century Netherlands’, De Zeventiende Eeuw, XXXII, no. 2, 2016, p. 186).
Although Sweerts made several paintings on the theme of creating art and its formal training, nothing is known about his own education. His baptism at the St. Nicolas church in Brussels is recorded in 1618, yet nothing whatsoever is known about his early years, until he is documented in 1646, at the age of 28, as a Catholic living with a fellow artist in the parish of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Certainly by this time he was fully formed as an artist, and in Rome was surrounded by a band of fellow artists from the North – the so-called Bamboccianti – whose scenes of Roman street life exerted such a strong influence on him. Sweerts was undoubtedly aware of the topical debates in Rome about art theory and may have been involved with an art academy set up by the Pope’s nephew Prince Camillo Pamphilj, who became his most important Roman patron. His relationship with the main painting academy in Rome – the Accademia di San Luca – is not clear.
The Artist’s Studio with a Seamstress offers an intimate glimpse into a seventeenth century studio in Rome in which we see artists working at their craft, musicians playing and a woman sewing. These simple activities are treated with considerable respect and the protagonists themselves, most notably the radiant turbaned seamstress, perfectly exemplify the monumental calm of classical art that Sweerts introduced into his genre scenes with such originality. Posed like a Raphael Madonna, wearing a blue dress, the seamstress devotes all her attention to her work, with an inner poise that sets herself apart from those around her. A study in concentration, she brings to mind Vermeer’s Lacemaker painted in Amsterdam two decades later (Paris, Louvre; fig. 4). In this sense, Sweerts’ seamstress serves as both model and role model to the artists, for in the repetitive task of sewing she demonstrates how knowledge and skill can only be attained by practice and repetition. A fundamental lesson for any aspiring artist or musician. Marjorie Wieseman stressed this point in respect to Sweerts’ related work The Schoolroom (Trustees of the Berkeley Will Trust, Berkeley Castle; fig. 5), in which the artist reused the figure of the seamstress, emphasising the seriousness with which he treated the role of education as a subject (see The Age of Rubens, exhibition catalogue, Boston, and New York, 1993, p. 442, under no. 75). Both pictures, as Sutton observed, ‘offer an account of, and mediation on, training and study’ (ibid., p. 112, under no. XII).
The seamstress is countered in Sweerts’ composition by the mass of sculptures in the right foreground. The practice of drawing from antique plaster casts was central to the curriculum of a classical art education and their presence would have been typical in any painting academy or studio in Rome. Sweerts chose casts to represent a spectrum of human expressions, ages and types, underlining the importance of antiquity and creativity’s debt to the past. While this represented the outmoded, ideal form of education for the young artist, painting directly from a live model was unorthodox and more associated with the followers of Caravaggio and the Bamboccianti. In this way Sweerts’ Artist’s Studio presents two divergent approaches to an artistic education: painting in the new naturalistic way - alla prima; and the old way, according to a rigid system of drawing from classical sculpture - no doubt resonating with debates in the artistic community in Rome at the time.
Sweerts included casts of both antique and contemporary sculpture, many of which can be identified today (see T. Döring, ‘Belebte Skulpturen bei Michael Sweerts zur Rezeptionsgeschichte eines Vergessenen Pseudo-Antiken Ausdruckskopfes’, Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, LV, 1994, pp. 55-83). He included a number of pieces by the Flemish baroque sculptor François Duquesnoy (1597-1643), with whom Sweerts must have felt an affinity, with both masters being born in Brussels and finding success in Rome. The bas-relief of Bacchanal of Putti with a Goat (Rome, Galleria Doria Pamphilj; fig. 6), which was owned by Sweerts’ patron Prince Camillo Pamphilj, is displayed prominently leaning against the table. Two fragmentary figures of Cupid, one headless at the top of the group and one resting on the large torso, belong to a model by Duquesnoy of Apollo and Cupid, which also feature in the Detroit Studio. Other antique busts that recur in both works include the Ludovisi Juno, which features here on its side nearest to the painter at the easel; the Cesi Juno, which lies on its side in the immediate left foreground; and the Statue of an Old Woman (Roman copy of a Hellenistic original), in the right foreground looking up at the young artist (fig. 7).
Sweerts left Rome sometime after 1652 and by 1655 is recorded back in Brussels where he took charge of a life drawing academy. Towards the end of the decade Sweerts’ deeply held Catholic faith began to take him on a new path away from painting. He is recorded in Amsterdam in 1661 by which time he had joined the Mission Étrangères, a Catholic missionary organization who were followers of Vincent de Paul and committed to proselytizing in the East. The French Lazarist priest Nicolas Etienne encountered Sweerts in Amsterdam and attested to his devotional intensity, describing how the artist had experienced a ‘miraculous conversion’, fasted daily, took communion four times a week and had given away all his possessions (see J. Bikker, ‘Sweerts’s Life and Career – A Documentary View’, Michael Sweerts: 1618-1664, op. cit., 2002, pp. 33 and 36). In January the following year, Sweerts set sail from Marseille with his fellow members of the Mission led by François Pallu, Bishop of Heliopolis, bound for Palestine and then onwards by land across Persia to Isfahan. However, by the time they had reached Tabriz in July, Sweerts had become mentally unstable. Pallu wrote that ‘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’ (W. Stechow, ‘Some Portraits by Michael Sweerts’, The Art Quarterly, XIV, no. 3, Detroit Institute of Arts, Autumn 1951, p. 209). Having been abandoned by the mission, Sweerts somehow made his own way to Goa where the Portuguese Jesuits had their headquarters. Nothing is known about the time he spent there until his death in 1664 at the age of 46.
While the early history of the Artist’s Studio with a Seamstress is unknown, it is tempting to speculate that it might originally have belonged to one of the Deutz brothers – Jean (1618-1673), Jeronimus (1622-1670) or Joseph (1624-1684), members of a wealthy Amsterdam family, who travelled together on a Grand Tour between 1646 and 1650, and all recorded to have been in contact with Sweerts while in Rome in 1648. Their inventories and wills list numerous paintings by the artist, with mention of a ‘Romeijns Naeijstertje’ (Roman Seamstress) in the posthumous inventory of Joseph Deutz, hanging alongside the Seven Acts of Mercy series in his mansion in the Heerengracht. Valued at 400 guilders, this was the highest price for a single picture in his collection, which included other works by Rembrandt, Drost and Dujardin, indicating that it was a work of particularly high quality. Until now, the Schoolroom (Berkeley Castle) has been thought the most likely candidate to be identified as the Deutz painting.
One of the reasons why the Artist’s Studio with a Seamstress has remained in obscurity for such a long time – and indeed why other discoveries by this artist have been made in recent years – is that Michael Sweerts became a largely forgotten figure soon after his death. Due to the enigmatic nature of his output and the diversity of his style, his artistic identity remained a mystery throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and his works were invariably overlooked or misattributed. It was not until Willem Martin’s seminal article on the artist, published in 1907, that Sweerts began to emerge from the shadows, not unlike Vermeer - another artist who was ‘rediscovered’ in the modern era (W. Martin, ‘Michiel Sweerts als schilder. Proeve van een Biografie en een Catalogus van zijn Schilderijen’, Oud Holland, XXV, 1907, pp. 133-156).