Brussels 1618 - Goa 1664
Oil on Canvas, 63 x 50 cm
Private Collection, Monaco and Belgium, for more than 40 years, by descent; Bernaerts, Antwerp, 9 Dec 2019, lot 175 as ‘Anonymous, Northern Netherlands, circa 1650;
Private Collection, United Kingdom.
Michael Sweerts’ rare self-portraits are iconic images even within Dutch and Flemish art – a field replete with icons. Particularly renowned are the Sweerts self-portraits at Oberlin College, c. 1656, and Queen’s University, Kingston, c. 1660 (Alfred Bader Collection). Although the present portrait has been unknown to past scholars, to see it is to experience the ‘Morellian moment’ that Max Friedländer (1867 – 1958), and other great connoisseurs, have long articulated; the intuitive response of trained eyes, based upon study and experience, to recognize the hand of a specific master in a specific object – all in a split second. Indeed, to encounter this self-portrait of irrefutable appeal and gravitas – and to know that it can only be a self-portrait by the enigmatic Sweerts – is to transform, by connoisseurship, the foreign into the familiar.
Notwithstanding that it has not come down to us in the finest state, the artist’s intention is so formidably preserved herein that we are left with the essence – in composition and handling – of what one expects in a portrait by the inimitable Sweerts. (It is no surprise that, before leaving Rome, the artist received a Papal knighthood, see Yeager-Crasselt 2015). Aiding us further in this split-second, Morellian response is the overwhelming sense that we have observed not only this specific handling, and its compositional logic, amongst the artist’s portraits in oils; but moreover, the facial features in the work before us are recognizably those of Sweerts himself.
As if straddling, in its intent, the magnificent Oberlin self-portrait (where the tools of the artist’s practice are prominently displayed as the rewards of the gifted) and the macabre Kingston self-portrait (where the artist admits, by the skull, the universally-fleeting nature of life itself, notwithstanding his rare gifts), the present portrait captures the pensive painter as a representative man of his time and place – the Low Countries round 1650.
Self-portraits by Sweerts in the Uffizi, and another recently in the art trade, where the artist holds a pipe (Salomon Lilian, Amsterdam – which is the original of the copy at Harvard), coupled with the Oberlin and Kingston pictures, document a uniformity of physiognomic features that are persuasive. A dark-eyed painter, self-confidently addressing his audience, with distinctive arched brows, framed by wavy brown hair; the thick moustache, full lips, and strong jawline all correspond across the four identified self-portraits and this re-discovery. And threading the expanding set (now numbering five) of self-portraits, one senses, by the eyes, intense self-scrutiny in a mirror – to achieve these masterful introspective exercises painted at the easel.
The focused attention given herein to the face and lead-white collar, the broad treatment of the remaining clothing, set against a simple background, with a restricted palette, are also common choices in the Uffizi and Lilian self-portraits. That surviving documentary evidence also establishes Sweerts painted at least six self-portraits (see Bikker 2002) bolsters the position that this is indeed a lost self-portrait, now found. From a dating perspective, the present portrait must stem from roughly the same moment as the Oberlin picture – perhaps a few years earlier, and whether it was painted in Italy or Flanders remains conjectural.
Additionally, it is noteworthy that when the painting (which is prepared on well-made, linen canvas, and set down over a pale layer of ground) was sold some years ago at auction, it included a pointing right hand. This hand appeared out of place and illogical, and in the restorer’s studio, it was confirmed to be a later addition and consequently removed to reflect Sweerts’ original composition. The cleaning of built-up dirt, discolored varnish, and excessive overpaint, coupled with the omission of the added hand, returned the self-portrait to the artist’s own conception. By this careful intervention, a major self-portrait, which occupies a middle seat – in its dignified sentiment – between the Oberlin and Kingston self-portraits has been returned to the painted corpus of Michael Sweerts.