Going South


9. Scanning Michael Sweerts

Kirsten Derks, Geert Van der Snickt, Katlijne Van der Stighelen and Koen Janssens 

Michael Sweerts (1618-1664) is one of the most enigmatic Flemish artists of the 17th century. Although our knowledge of him as an artist and a man has grown over the last century, most part of his life and work still remains veiled in mystery. While he was a very successful artist, his name and work was gradually forgotten over the course of the 18th and early 19th century, only to be rediscovered at the end of the 19th century, sparking new research into the artist. Willem Martin’s 1907 monograph1 and Rolf Kultzen’s 1996 publication2 have been the cornerstone of all subsequent research into Sweerts. Both authors tried to reconstruct the oeuvre of Sweerts and compiled a comprehensive catalogue of paintings and prints. In 2002, the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (Hartford, Connecticut) organized a monographic exhibition on Sweerts, accompanied by a catalogue, which included new archival and technical research into Sweerts.3 More recently, in 2015, Lara Yeager-Crasselt published on Sweerts and his connection to the drawing Academy. Her book helped to gain more insight into the context in which Sweerts was active as an artist, with special attention for the drawing Academy and the education of artists in the 17th century.4

This paper deals with the preliminary results of technical art historical research into the works of Michael Sweerts. This technical research is part of a larger research project into the working methods of Brussels-based baroque artists.5 The aim of the project is to gain a better understanding of working methods used by artists based in Brussels, and if and how these methods differed from the working practices of artists working in Antwerp in the same period. In this context, a series of paintings attributed to Sweerts have been examined with MA-XRF scanning.6

Macro x-ray fluorescence, or MA-XRF, scanning is a non-destructive analytical imaging technique, based on the XRF technique. The technique allows for collecting elemental information about the materials present in a work of art. MA-XRF can reveal the distribution of chemical elements in surface and subsurface layers, allowing in many cases the identification of pigments used. It can also be used to visualize preparatory stages and pentimenti underneath the paint surface.7 Over the course of the last decade, MA-XRF scanning has become a much-used analytical technique for the study of 17th-century paintings and the working practices of baroque artists. It has proven to be very useful for revealing sub-surface layers and gaining more knowledge on the build-up of paintings.8

A total of 10 paintings attributed to Sweerts have been examined with MA-XRF scanning in the context of the current research project. Five of which can be attributed to Sweerts’ Italian period, while the other five are considered to have been painted in the Low Countries. This selection of paintings allowed for a comparison of Sweerts’ materials and techniques throughout his career. After some historical context, the results of the technical examinations will be discussed, with a special focus on Sweerts’ palette throughout his career, the dark halo technique9 and his use of underdrawing.

Cover image
Michael Sweerts
Draughts players, dated 1652
The Hague, Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, inv./cat.nr. 1121


1 Martin 1907.

2 Kultzen 1996.

3 Jansen/Sutton 2002.

4 Yeager-Crasselt 2015.

5 This (PhD) research project, funded by the FWO (Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, project number G0D2618N) focuses on the materials and techniques used by 17th-century Brussels-based artists, with a focus on Michael Sweerts and Michaelina Wautier.

6 For MA-XRF scanning, the in-house built AXIL scanner of the AXIS research group of the University of Antwerp was used.

7 Alfeld 2013.

8 De Keyser et al. 2017; Harth et al 2017; Van der Snickt et al. 2018.

9 For our research into the dark halo technique in Flemish baroque painting, see Derks et al. 2022.

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