Michael Sweerts

(Brussels 1619 - Goa 1664)

An Allegory of Winter

Indistinctly signed in monogram on the floor in the
left foreground: MS
Oil on canvas, 28⅞ x 23 ins. (72.9 x 58.4 cm)
Framed: 33⅞ x 28¼ ins. (86 x 72 x 3 cm)

Sold to a private collector

Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico (1724–1799), Rome
Ludovico Michele Widmann, (1719–63), Venice
By descent to Ludovico Widmann (1755–1816), Venice, 1808
Sale, Clark’s, London, 2 June 1827, no. 7, as a companion to no. 9, “A Painter’s Study”
Düsseldorf, Private Collection, by 2002
With Salomon Lilian, B.V., Amsterdam, 2006
From whom acquired by the present owner, 2006
The Leiden Collection, New York, until 2023


Kultzen, Rolf, Pantheon, XXXVII, 1980, p. 64.note 1, p. 65, fig. 1.
Magani, Fabrizio, “Il collezionismo e la committenz artistica della famiglia Widmann, patrizi veneziani,
dal Seicento all’ ottocento”, Memorie dell’Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, XI,Venice, 1989, p. 119.
Magani, Fabrizio, “Alcuni ragguagli e novità sul collezionismo dei Widmann tra seicento e ottocento
attraverso un inventario redatto da Petro Edwards”, Atti dell’Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti
CXLVIII, 1989-90, p. 9.
Kultzen, Rolf, Michael Sweerts: Brussels 1618-Goa 1664, edited and translated by Diane L. Webb,
Doornspijk, 1996, pp. 14, 21, 22, 93, no. 18, plate VI.
Jansen, Guido and Peter C. Sutton, eds., Michael Sweerts, 1618-1664, Exh. Cat., Amsterdam,
Rijksmuseum; San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum
Museum of Art, Zwolle, 2002, p. 30, notes 40 & 41; pp. 122-23, fig. XV-3. 


An old man with grey hair and beard is seated on a wooden stool before a brazier, warming his hands.  A small boy in ragged clothing sits on the floor beside him, raking over the glowing coals with a stick.  Behind a woman in a headscarf sweeps the floor.  Both she and the small boy are absorbed in their tasks, only the old man raises his eyes to look at the viewer.  The child and the old man are illuminated in a pool of strong light falling from above, while the room behind is shrouded in semi-darkness.  Barely discernible in the shadows is the outline of a fireplace.  An open door situated in the right background admitting a glimmer of light draws the eye deeply into the interior.  Sweerts has rendered the tattered clothing of the man and the boy with the same meticulous care that he brings to the observation of the man’s silvery locks and grizzled beard.  The whole scene is painted in multiple shades of grey and brown, with highlights in crisp white. 

In seventeenth-century art, the image of an old man warming his hands was commonly understood to be a representation of winter.  In allegories of The Four Seasons an association was often made with the Four Ages of Man, with the bleak, barren days of winter naturally being likened to the physical decrepitude of old age. 

Sweerts was a highly original artist, but owing to his peripatetic life and eclectic tendencies, his art is difficult to categorise, manifesting as it does stylistic influences from both Northern and Southern Europe.  Documentary sources provide only fragmentary glimpses of his life.  He was born into a prosperous merchant family in Brussels, in 1618, but the details of his early life and training as an artist have not come down to us.  It is not until 1646 that he resurfaces, already in his mid-to-late twenties, living on the Via Margutta in Rome, at the heart of the artists’ community in the city.  He remained there until at least 1652, before returning to Brussels. 

During his years in Rome, Sweerts became deeply immersed in the artistic and cultural life of the city.  Although no record has been found of his membership either of the Accademia di San Luca, or the confraternity of Northern painters, called the Schildersbent, he clearly had ties to both organisations.  During this period, he enjoyed the patronage of Dutch merchants and Grand Tourists visiting Rome, such as the wealthy Deutz brothers of Amsterdam, and Anthonij de Bordes.  He also secured the support of several Roman patrons, the most important of whom was Camillo Pamphilj (1622-1666), a nephew of Pope Innocent X (1574-1655), who owned at least four of Sweerts’s paintings.  Archival documents indicate that Sweerts began working for Camillo in 1651, and in the following years, performed a variety of tasks for him, including apparently having a hand in the running of a private academy of art in the Pamphilj palace.  Through his relationship with Camillo Pamphilj, Sweerts was drawn into the circle of artists and sculptors working at the Pamphilj court, and no doubt also had access to Camillo’s impressive collection of paintings and sculpture.  It was very likely Camillo’s personal intervention that led to the Pope honouring Sweerts with the title “cavaliere” (knight).  

Sweerts’s sojourn in Rome was an especially productive and successful time.  Most of his oeuvre belongs to this period and includes paintings of Italian street life, interior scenes set in contemporary Rome, single figures of peasants, portraits and a series of the Seven Acts of Charity.  Sweerts also made a speciality of scenes of artists working in the studio and outdoors, drawing from life and antique sculpture.  His paintings from these years are characterised by dramatic contrasts of light and shade, derived from the work of Pieter van Laer (Il Bamboccio) and his followers and the study of Roman Caravaggism.  His work combines elements from Bamboccianti low-life themes with the more academic, classicising approach of depicting the human body promoted by the Accademia di san Luca.  The impact of Sweerts’s own study of antique sculpture is particularly evident in his art. 

The present work belongs to Sweerts’s Roman period and is a fine example of the unpretentious genre scenes he painted that focus upon simple folk, often a single figure, or sometimes two or three, going about their humble daily tasks.  These include depictions of beggars, drinkers, mothers removing lice from their children’s hair, and old women spinning.  Strong contrasts of light and shade and a fondness for placing light figures against a darkened background are characteristic of this group.  Above all, these remarkable representations of the underclass reveal in Sweerts a deep human sympathy towards the impoverished and dispossessed members of society.  They are perhaps a reflection of a compassionate nature that led eventually to Sweerts abandoning a creative life in favour of that of a missionary overseas. 

This painting has a distinguished early provenance.  Although we do not know for whom it was painted, by the eighteenth century, it was in the possession of Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico (1724-1799), in Rome.  Subsequently, through the marriage of his niece, Quintillia Rezzonico (daughter of Aurelio Rezzonico) to Ludovico Michele Widmann (1719-1763), it entered the collection of the wealthy Widmann family, who lived in Venice.  In the 1808 inventory of Ludovico Widmann (1755-1816), the painting is listed together with a companion piece by Sweerts: “Two paintings of equal grandeur.  One represents painting, sculpture and music.  The other, an old man who warms his hands by a heater”[i].  The companion picture can be identified as In the Studio, dated 1652, which is now in The Detroit Institute of Arts[ii].  The two paintings were still together in the Clark’s sale in London, in 1827, but became separated at that sale.  Although the two pictures are of similar dimensions, they are of markedly different subjects.  It is not known whether they were conceived as a pair by the artist, or linked by a later owner. 

A copy after the present painting (Michael Sweerts, Old Man and Boy by a Fire, oil on canvas, 69 x 59.5 cm) was sold at Sotheby’s in London, on 25 May 1988, no. 31 (ex Grazioli Collection.) 


Son of the cloth merchant David Sweerts, Michael Sweerts was baptised in the Catholic Church of St. Nicholas in Brussels on 29 September 1618.  Nothing is known of his early life or his training as an artist, nor have any of his paintings from his early years in Brussels apparently survived.  However, documents from later in his life tell us that he was well travelled and spoke seven languages before his arrival in Rome, where he resurfaces in 1646.  His name appears in the annual Easter census of the Parish Santa Maria del Popolo in that year and in each of the following years until 1651.  Like so many Northern artists, he lived on the Via Margutta, at the heart of the Northern artists’ community in Rome. He may have been in Rome for some time before 1646 because in October of that year he was charged with collecting the contributions from the Northern artists to the Accademia di San Luca, together with his Brussels compatriot and colleague Louis Cousin (1606-1667), who had been living in Rome since 1626. There is no evidence, however, that he ever joined the Schildersbent, the association of Northern artists, also known as the Bentvueghels (“Birds of a Feather”), although he must have known many of its members.  In Rome, Sweerts enjoyed the patronage of a number of distinguished patrons, including Cardinal Camillo Pamphilj, a nephew of Pope Innocent X, and Cardinal Flavio Chigi.  He also worked for Dutch Grand Tourists and merchants, such as the Deutz brothers of Amsterdam, for whom he painted portraits and other works.  Before departing from Rome, the Pope bestowed upon him the title of ‘cavaliere’ (knight). 

Judging from two signed and dated paintings of 1652, which bear the inscription “fecit Romae”, Sweerts was still in the Eternal City in that year, and could well have remained there longer, but he was definitely back in Brussels by 1655 when he stood godfather to Michael Auserkercken, the son of his sister Catherine and her husband Jodocus.  By the following year, he was master of his own academy of life drawing which, according to a document of 1656[iii], was attended daily by many young people and provided instruction to, among others, trainee tapestry designers.  In 1659, he joined the Brussels Guild of painters and, in the same year, became a member of a new French Society of Missionaries, as a lay brother and artist.  The precise length of his stay in Brussels is unclear, but a document, dated 1660, records that the Brussels painters’ Guild received a self-portrait from the artist, evidently a farewell gift, which was placed in the Guild’s meeting room ‘in remembrance of him’[iv].  We do not know what became of his academy but, in July 1661, Sweerts was in Amsterdam where he met Nicolas Etienne, a Lazarist priest, who noted in his diary that the artist “ate no meat, fasted almost every day, slept on a hard floor, gave money to the poor and took communion three or four times a week”[v].  Fired with evangelical zeal, Sweerts joined a missionary expedition, under the direction of Monseigneur François Pallu, bound for the Far East.  The mission departed from Amsterdam towards the end of 1661, setting sail for Palestine in January 1662 and travelling overland through Syria, before arriving in Tabriz in Persia in June 1662.  However, by July of that year, Pallu reported that Sweerts was “not the master of his own mind” and as a consequence of his unstable and difficult temperament he was expelled from the mission.  Very little is known of Sweerts’s movements subsequently except that he made his way to Goa on India’s west coast, where the Portuguese Jesuits were based, and died there in obscurity in 1664. 

[i]  F. Magnani, 1989-90, see literature for reference. 

[ii] Michael Sweerts, In the Studio, signed and dated 1652, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 58.5 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, City of Detroit Purchase, 30.297.

[iii]  A petition, dated 28th February, 1656 from Sweerts to the city magistrates in Brussels, in which he  requested certain privileges (exemption from taxes in the form of grain and wine and participation in the civic guard) normally granted to fine artists.  His eligibility was claimed on the grounds that he had founded an academy of life drawing frequented by many adolescents on a daily basis. For full text see: exh. cat., Guido Janson and Peter Sutton, op. cit., p. 34. 

[iv]  Brussels, Archives Générales du Royaume, Archives des corps de métiers et serments de Brabant: Peintres, Batteurs d’or et Vitriers, inv. 818, p. 221.

[v]  For the complete (French) text of Etienne’s account pertaining to Sweerts see: J. Bikker, ‘Een miraculeus leven’, Kunstschrift, XLV, 2001, pp. 16-26.