Created in the mid-1600s in Italy by the artist, Michael Sweerts; the Head of a Woman can be considered as a unique representation of the artistic styles of the era. The reason behind such an assertion is connected to the fact that the subject was a poor woman that Sweerts had encountered in Italy. The poor at the time were rarely used in paintings aside from portraying them in humorous caricatures. This is what makes the painting unique since it is evident that Sweerts put a lot of time and effort into its development.
Based on the analysis of Haythornthwaite which delved into the thematic elements of portraits during the 16th century, the work of Sweerts follows the same realist styles which incorporate a black/dark background in order to extenuate the subject of the painting (Haythornthwaite, 10). Yet, what differentiates this particular work by Sweerts from his other contemporaries at the time is his incorporation of an apparent “3D effect” to the painting wherein the character seemingly leaps out of the canvas.
This level of realism and the “distance” between the subject of the painting and the viewer (i.e., the woman in the portrait seems to be situated incredibly close to the viewer) is similar to the works of Giovanni Bellini, Rembrandt, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. However, it should be noted that the level of realism incorporated by Sweerts exceeds the works created by the aforementioned painters (at least in my opinion, it does).
When looking at the lines and contours of the painting and comparing it to other examples from the 16th century, there is an immediate dissimilarity that is noticeable. The first difference is in relation to the depiction of imperfections in the subject; artists such as Bellini, Rembrandt, and Ingres seemingly eschewed the concept of depicting the subjects as they were and instead utilized what I dub “the Photoshop of their generation.”
The faces of their subjects were smoothed out and whitened, their skin took on an almost alabaster like quality, they had no wrinkles, no moles, and thee lines on their faces were fairly absent. All in all, they did not look human, and while there was a certain degree of realism in their portrayal, the fact is that the “human element” in the paintings, namely all the flaws that come within being a human, was missing just made them look fake. In comparison, the subject of Sweerts looks as real as if she were standing right beside me.
The painting almost looks like a photograph since it captures the moles, age lines, and sunburnt skin of the subject. In fact, Sweerts even portrayed the wrinkles in her collar in order to incorporate more “flaws” into the work. The use of lines and contours in work itself uses relatively thin and gentle strokes which may be due to the desire of Sweerts to better portray the various “human elements” in work (Lacey, 24).
Overall, it can be stated that the work of Sweerts is unique in that it both utilizes a poor person as to its primary subject and incorporates the flaws that other artists normally gloss over. One of the possible reasons why Sweerts was able to accomplish this may be due to the fact that this painting was not commissioned as compared to the other works by the aforementioned artists in this examination.
Kang and Pashler explain that during the 16th century (and the centuries thereafter), the commissioned work of various artists by the nobility or rich merchants often eschewed the flaws in the subject due to the request of the buyer (Kang and Pashler, 97). They often wanted the best possible representation of themselves and, as a result, artists at the time had to gloss over the flaws and showcase a “fake” representation of how these people were.
Examples of this can be seen in the representation of Catherine the Great, King Henry the VIII, and Elizabeth the First who were both depicted as regal and quite handsome or beautiful in their paintings when in reality Henry was morbidly obese, Elizabeth had few of her original teeth left and Catherine was actually considered “less than ideal”. Taking these factors into consideration, it can thus be assumed that Sweerts had a definite purpose in portraying his subject the way he did, which will be tackled in the next section.
When examining this particular piece and comparing it to other works at the time, I began to think that the reason why Sweerts created was to showcase the realism that is possible without having to accede to the requests of a client. Since the person he depicted was poor, he was able to pour all of his talents into depicting her as she appeared to him.
At the same time, he was able to bring out the subject’s inner beauty while still following the realist style. Another possible interpretation behind the work could be that Sweerts wanted other artists to realize that simply painting portraits for clients would hamper their own artistic talents since they are in effect painting based on what someone else wants instead of what their artistic soul is demanding of them.
Haythornthwaite, Sophie. “Rediscovering The Language Of The Masters.” Australian Artist 17.12 (2001): 10. Print
Kang, Sean H. K., and Harold Pashler. “Learning Painting Styles: Spacing Is Advantageous When It Promotes Discriminative Contrast.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 26.1 (2012): 97-103. Print
Lacey, John. “Style Comes From Your Heart.” Australian Artist 21.11 (2005): 24.Print