Zurbarán. A New Perspective
From 9 June to 13 September 2015
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Michiel Sweerts was among the 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists who lived in Rome and depicted daily life in the city. He lived there for around ten years (1646–56), during which time he produced genre compositions of the type invented by Pieter van Laer. Sweerts painted a series of canvases in which he depicted beggars, peasants and soldiers playing dice and cards, as well as more unusual scenes such as wrestling. His paintings of this type have been compared with those of other northern artists in Rome, and works of this type were painted to be sold on the open market. Other artists comparable to Sweerts include the Dutch painters Jacob Duck, Pieter Codde and Willem Duyster, as well as Johannes Lingelbach and Pieter van Laer, the inventor of these genre compositions. Sweerts’ scenes differ from those of these other artists in the mood and tone that he conveyed, and he approached his subjects in a restrained manner with even a slight note of melancholy. However broken down and tattered, his figures are treated with dignity and decorum, located in rather static settings with backgrounds that can on occasions be identified as specific locations in Rome. In Sweerts’ paintings of this type the figures are strongly lit and modelled with a distinctive type of chiaroscuro.
According to Gaskell Soldiers playing Dice was painted shortly after Sweerts left Rome. In the foreground, and illuminated by a powerful focus of light, are two seated men playing dice on top of a drum that serves as a makeshift table. The figure seen frontally has just thrown the dice, which are carefully examined by the other player, seen from behind. The scene takes place out of doors in a courtyard, illuminated by a dim evening light whose warm glow is barely visible in the background sky. In the background and accompanying these two idle soldiers, Sweerts painted a further four figures that are almost impossible to detect: two seated on the right and another swathed in a cloak and hat standing just behind the principal scene. The fourth figure is only visible in outline and is standing guard in the doorway of the room that opens off the courtyard.
The painting has been compared to other canvases by Sweerts in which he depicts game playing, such as the one in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, in which two low-life figures play cards on a small barrel, and the one in the Musée du Louvre in which two soldiers, accompanied by other figures, play dice on top of a drum. Sweerts took the figure of the soldier in the yellow coat from the present work and repeated it in the figure of one of the students sketching in the oil entitled Studio Scene in the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem. The present composition is completed in the left foreground with an eye-catching pile of pieces of armour with a flag on top. In his paintings of art academies and artists’ studio such piles are made up of busts and fragments of classical sculptures.