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Brussels 1624–Goa (Poruguese India) 1664
Michael Sweerts is certainly one of the most creative and enigmatic artists of the seventeenth century. He was a painter, a dealer, an intermediary, a teacher and a deeply devout believer and yet he is frequently described as an outsider as he seems not to have associated himself with his fellow Netherlandish artists in Rome nor had much to do with the official art institutions of his day.
Nothing is known of his training or early career. From about 1646 to about 1656 he was in Rome, where he came into contact with the Bamboccianti. He painted genre scenes in their manner, but his work is in a class apart because of the quiet, melancholy dignity of his figures and his exquisite silvery tonality. His other pictures in Rome included views of artists' studios (an example dated 1652 is in the Detroit Institute of Arts). By 1656 Sweerts had returned to his native Brussels, where in 1659 he became a member of the painters' guild.
There are many gaps in our knowledge of Sweerts's life. What we know comes from journals, and official documents. He was baptized in Brussels on 29 September, 1618 in a Roman Catholic church. Nothing is known about his teacher. From 1646 to 1651 the name 'Michile Suarssi' is found each year in the register of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, where Sweerts probably lived from 1640. In the early 1650s he worked for Pope Innocent X, who knighted him. In 1656 he was in Brussels, where he founded a drawing school (The Drawing School, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem) and in 1660 he is recorded as being briefly in Amsterdam. A short time before he had joined a group of French missionaries, the 'Missions Etrangères' and on 2 January, 1662, he departed for China via Palestine as a missionary. A few months later he was expelled from the brotherhood for unacceptable behavior and he journeyed on to Goa, where he died in 1664.
Though a Flemish painter Michael Sweerts worked in Italy, Syria, and India. By the age of twenty-eight, Sweerts was living in Rome and was a member of the painters' academy there. In subsequent years, Sweerts worked as a representative at the papal customs house, collecting wool for a wealthy Antwerp merchant. At the age of thirty-eight, he returned to his native Brussels, where he founded an academy of drawing and joined the painters' guild.
Almost all of Sweerts's paintings date from his time in Rome. Sweerts painted religious and secular works, but he is most noted for his realistic portraits. His paintings exhibited his interest not only in the observation of daily life but also in the study of classical sculpture, which he pursued in Rome.
Four years after returning to Brussels, Sweerts left again, this time to Asia as a missionary. In Aleppo, Syria, Sweerts painted and proselytized, but he was dismissed from the mission after only two years because of his unstable and undisciplined character. He eventually reached Goa, India, where he died two years later.