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A portrait of the artist (?), presenting the Virgin in Prayer

A portrait of the artist (?), presenting the Virgin in Prayer
oil on canvas
17 ¾ x 13 ½ in. (45.1 x 34.3 cm.)
Private collection, Austria, since at least the first half of the 20th century, and by inheritance to the present owner.
Sale room notice
Please note that this lot is currently displayed in a loan Dutch frame of c.1650 from Arnold Wiggins & Sons which is not being sold with the picture, but could be acquired separately. Please ask the department for further details about this and the picture’s original frame which can be viewed on request.

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Maja Markovic
Maja Markovic Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Ingenious in its deception, this unique work is a remarkable rediscovery by an artist of enviable inimitability: Michael Sweerts, ‘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). Unpublished and previously unknown to scholars, this small canvas is extraordinarily original in its conception and speaks to Sweerts’ inventiveness and erudition as an artist.

Though the first article on Sweerts was published as long ago as 1907 (W. Martin, ‘Michiel Sweerts als schilder. Proeve van een Biografie en een Catalogus van zijn Schilderijen’, Oud Holland, XXV, 1907, pp. 133-156), he is still far from a household name. Yet this mysterious wonder, once the well-kept secret of Netherlandish art historians and curators, emerged as if out of nowhere, with a body of work so diverse as to remain unclassifiable.

Sweerts made several paintings on the theme of artistic training and creation, yet nothing is known about his own education. His baptism at the St. Nicolas church in Brussels is recorded in 1618, yet his early years remain much of a mystery (for context surrounding Brussels at this time, see L. Yeager-Crasselt, Michael Sweerts (1618-1664): Shaping the Artist and the Academy in Rome and Brussels, Turnhout, 2016, pp. 29-51). In 1646, at the age of 28, he was documented as 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. In Rome, he was surrounded by a band of fellow artists from the North – the so-called Bamboccianti – whose scenes of Roman street life exerted a particularly strong influence on his work. Sweerts was undoubtedly aware of the topical debates in Rome about art theory and was involved with a drawing academy set up by the Pope’s nephew, Prince Camillo Pamphilj, who became his most important Roman patron (see ibid., pp. 87-90). His relationship with the main painting academy in Rome – the Accademia di San Luca – remains unclear.

The layers of allusion in Sweerts’ idiosyncratic works demonstrated his engagement with seventeenth-century debates on the status of the painter – was he an artist due to his intellectual abilities or the skill of his hands? It was only at the beginning of the sixteenth century that painters began to affirm their position as ‘liberal’ artists, rather than simply manual labourers. Borne out of his own deep interest in pedagogy and artistic instruction, Sweerts here self-referentially declares his mastery of both image and medium – the inventor presenting his invention within another invention. And just as painters often featured themselves in their work, Sweerts was no exception, and no doubt envisaged himself in this composition as an integral participant with an underlying didactic purpose.

With his mane of auburn locks and wide eyes, the figure resembles Sweerts’ other likenesses, such as his self-portrait at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin (fig. 1), dateable to circa 1656-8. While both depictions convey a sense of self-confidence, Sweerts’ Oberlin portrait underscores his position as a learned artist – his attire elegantly understated, surrounded by the paraphernalia of his profession – yet in the present picture, he seemingly undercuts this idea in a less overt declaration by straying onto the scene in a simple painter’s smock.

Though most of Sweerts’ work is undated, the present picture demonstrates the same refined handling of the period of the Oberlin portrait, probably executed toward the end of his sojourn in Rome or shortly after his return to Brussels. It is there that Sweerts founded an academy for life drawing during this decade, and in 1656 also published his series of twelve etchings titled Diversae facies in vsvm iuvenvm et aliorvm delineatae (‘Diverse faces made for the use by the young and others’), which were comprised of various head studies, possibly done from life, designated for the study of drawing; we need only recall the title page to guess the source of inspiration for the present composition (fig. 2). There, a young man peers out of the shadows as he points to a painter’s easel inscribed with the title of the series. The figure’s attention, as the direction of his gaze makes clear, is on the viewer, beckoning us to both look intently at the artifice and ponder on the nature of artistic production. In much the same vein, the man in the present work, submerged in shadow behind the frame, stands in sharp contrast to his hands, which are lit with almost exclamatory highlights, drawing attention to the painting of the Virgin in Prayer and the means of her production.

This same beatific light appears to illuminate the more fully described Virgin, in whose figure Sweerts marries the ethereality of a Sassoferrato Madonna with the humanity of one of his seamstresses (see lot 34). The painting of the Virgin may in itself have been an autonomous work by Sweerts, seemingly shown in a fictive frame for pictorial effect, too slim to function in reality and decorated with a generic egg-and-dart moulding. Indeed, it is not without precedent that Sweerts included his own paintings within paintings, such as his Roman Wrestlers (Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe) within his Painter’s Studio at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (c. 1646-50).

Trompe l’oeil devices had a profound influence on the artist, whose gesture and direct gaze in this painting projects beyond the picture plane toward an implied beholder. The rich interplay of light and shadow gives the impression of three-dimensional space, what seventeenth century Dutch manuals called houding – compositional and spatial effects produced by harmonious transitions of light, shadow and colour to form a space that seems ‘as if it were accessible with one’s feet’ (from Willem Goeree, Inleydinge tot de al-ghemeene teycken-konst, 1668, cited in P. Taylor, ‘The Concept of Houding in Dutch Art Theory’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1992, LV, p. 211).

Yet much like many of Sweerts’ half-length figures, the young man here is seen within an indeterminate space, posed against a distant blue horizon with only the slight hint of a cloud-filled sky. One precedent for both this painting and Sweerts’ etching may have been the work of his Roman contemporary, Salvator Rosa, who, much like Sweerts, gained a richly merited reputation for fiery individualism. Rosa’s Philosophy of circa 1645 (once believed to be a self-portrait; London, National Gallery; fig. 3) must have been a particular inspiration in both composition and erudite tenor, with a man, staged in a comparably undefined space, holding a philosophical inscription that reads, in Latin, ‘Keep silent unless your speech is better than silence’.

We are grateful to Dr. Lara Yeager-Crasselt for her assistance in the cataloguing of this lot.

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