One of the most creative artists of the Baroque period, Michiel Sweerts had a highly unusual career lasting little more than fifteen years. Nicolas Etienne, the French Lazarist missionary who met Sweerts in Amsterdam in 1661 in the company of the Société des Missions Etrangères, described his austere and saintly way of life with admiration, also remarking that the artist had traveled widely and spoke seven languages. Esteemed by Pope Innocent X and Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici, Sweerts also enjoyed the patronage of such illustrious collectors as Prince Camillo Pamphilj and the prosperous Deutz brothers.
Virtually nothing is known of Sweerts's early years. He was born in Brussels, where he was baptized in 1618. He is next documented in 1646 as a Catholic residing near Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, where many members of the Schildersbent--the confraternity of expatriate Dutch and Flemish artists--also lived. It is possible that before traveling to Italy, Sweerts visited France and the Northern Netherlands, where he would have learned from such artists as the Le Nain and Gerard ter Borch. Indeed, in his pioneering article on Sweerts of 1907, Willem Martin referred to him as the 'Dutch Le Nain', perceiving both possible influences in the monumental stillness and naturalism of Sweerts's peasant figures and low-life genre scenes (see W. Martin, 'Michiel Sweerts als schilder. Proeve van een Biografie en een Catalogus van zijn Schilderijn', Oud Holland, XXV, 1907, p. 134).
Kultzen broadly associates Sweerts's paintings of single or double figures in a darkened interior with the years 1646-1654, when the artist was living in Rome. The present picture likely dates to the late 1640s, soon after he arrived, as do other comparable paintings (see M. Waddingham, 'The Sweerts' Exhibition in Rotterdam', Paragone, IX, 107, 1958, p. 69). Shaw-Miller dates the present work to c. 1650, noting that a picture of this subject is listed in a 1731 inventory of the estate of Anthony Deutz, which could refer equally to any of the artist's known depictions of the theme. These are in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg and the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, while a version of the present painting, with slight differences in the background, is in the Musée Crozatier, Le Puy.
Depictions of moederzorg (maternal care themes) were popular during the Dutch Golden Age. Contemporary literature reveals a preoccupation with a woman's role in society, as defined by her position as wife and mother. Social moralists wrote pamphlets and books emphasizing a woman's responsibility to create in her home the ideals of the Dutch Republic--cleanliness and order--where children would be raised to become morally sound adults and productive citizens. The popular proverb by Johan de Brune: 'Lazy mother, lousy children', which artists such as Pieter de Hooch, Dirk Hals and Quiringh Brekelenkam took up in their work, reflects such an attitude as well (see P.C. Sutton, ed., Masters of the Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting, 1984, under cat. no. 17).
Delousing was a necessary task in the 17th-century, regardless of social standing. In Holland, nit-picking was understood as a metaphor for the human condition--the idea that cleanliness of body was naturally linked to purity of mind and soul. One of the most widely read moralistic rhetoricians of the time, Jacob Cats, produced verses emphasizing the importance of maintaining physical, mental and moral cleanliness: 'Comb, comb, again and again, and not the hair alone, but also all that hides within, until the inner bone.' The painting of the Madonna and Child in the background of this picture reinforces the moral implications of the act of grooming and of the close connection between mother and son. The dramatic lighting of the scene, evocative of the work of Caravaggio and his followers, imbues the picture with a sense of mystery. At this moment, however, all is still and tranquil. The solidly-modelled, statuesque figures draw the viewer into this simple vignette of 17th-century life, at once rooted in its time and yet seemingly ageless.