Michiel Sweerts was one of the most intriguing and enigmatic artists of the seventeenth century. A painter and printmaker, and later a lay missionary, Sweerts enjoyed an itinerant life. He travelled to Rome in 1646, where he is recorded as living on the via Margutta, the hub of artistic activity in the city, and working in the Accademia di San Luca. By the mid-1650s he had moved back to Brussels, and would spend time in Amsterdam before departing to Persia and India, to spread the word of his deeply held faith: such was his devotion that a priest described him as a man who 'eats no meat, fasts almost every day and takes communion three or four times a week'. In subsequent centuries his fame as an artist waned, and he slipped into relative obscurity before his work received significant new critical attention following Rolf Kultzen's monograph in 1996 and a major touring exhibition in 2002 (Amsterdam, San Francisco and Hartford).
As an artist, Sweerts was long associated with the Dutch Golden Age, despite being born in Brussels, and with the bamboccianti, the circle of predominantly northern painters living in Rome who depicted 'low-life', 'realistic' scenes. Sweerts's artistic output resists simple categorisation, however. He appears to embrace opposing 'realistic' and classicist tendencies, on the one hand depicting scenes of everyday life, but on the other evidently conscious of academic tradition (see the Artist's Studio, c. 1650, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). He turned his hand to history painting, portraiture and genre scenes, a repertoire that was as broad as his handling was skilful. And though he appeared to be a romantic outsider, he nonetheless enjoyed the patronage of establishment figures, including wealthy merchants such as the Deutz brothers and Prince Camillo Pamphilj in Rome.
The present composition is typically compelling. As in some of his other works, Sweerts has chosen to make use of dramatic chiaroscuro to light the scene, bringing out the colours and folds in the woman's clothes against a dark background, and thus heightening the intensity of the image. Sweerts generates a slight tension by adding the manservant in the background: the viewer's eye is drawn to the boy, and to the glistening pot in his hand, as he exits stage right, yet it is pulled back by the soulful, engaging gaze of the woman, who bears a resemblance to the figure in the work by Sweerts held at the Worcester Art Museum. This picture not only evidences Sweerts's great painterly talent but also his skill in eliciting tension, theatre and psychological complexity in the most apparently simple of compositions.