Although from Brussels, Sweerts probably painted this masterful work in Amsterdam, where he was active about 1656–61. The subject was usually depicted within a series of the Seven Acts of Mercy, but this canvas must have been independent and seems directly related to the artist’s personal life. In Holland he was known for his acts of self-denial and charity. His last few years were dedicated to missionary work in Persia and India.
The subject is one of the Seven Acts of Mercy that Christ enumerates in a parable concerning the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:35–36). Sweerts would have been familiar with innumerable examples of the theme illustrated in various media and formats, both in the Spanish Netherlands and in Italy (where he lived about 1645–55). In the late 1640s Sweerts painted a series of seven canvases (each about 75 x 99 cm) representing in a very different fashion the Acts of Mercy; Clothing the Naked (one of four from the set in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) shows a long line of impoverished men receiving garments in a Roman street. (The entire series is published in Kultzen 1996, nos. 47–53, and Sutton 2002, no. V). This set of canvases must be identical with the "Seven pieces, depicting the Seven Acts of Mercy" that are cited in the 1686 estate inventory of Joseph Deutz, an Amsterdam merchant who with his brothers had business dealings with Sweerts in Rome between 1646 and 1650. The painter served as the Deutzes' agent in negotiations with papal custom officials concerning shipments of textiles and purchases of antique sculpture and paintings by artists then working in Rome.
The Museum’s picture of a young gentleman offering a garment to a solemnly grateful and nearly naked man probably dates from about 1659–61 when Sweerts (after some five years in his native Brussels) was living in Amsterdam. Works by Rembrandt and artists in his circle are brought to mind by the composition and use of light, although the latter has a naturalistic intensity that some critics have compared with that of Vermeer and other Dutch painters. There is no evidence that Sweerts ever painted or intended to paint another six canvases to accompany this one, and the subject stands well on its own. As Liedtke (1992) has argued, in the Dutch Republic at the time acts of charity were advocated by Protestant preachers and were performed by various civic institutions and religious groups. Furthermore, in 1661 Sweerts himself was observed by a Lazarist priest to fast almost every day, take communion three or four times a week, and to give his possessions to the poor. Early in 1662 the artist sailed from Marseilles for Persia with the Société des Missions Etrangères. Six months later he was dismissed in Isfahan, after repeated complaints about his excessive zeal and meddling in priestly affairs. Sweerts made his own way to a rival camp, the Portuguese Jesuits in Goa, India, where he died in 1664.
This canvas was first recorded in 1719 in the collection of Lothar Franz Graf von Schönborn, Schloss Weissenstein, near Pommersfelden. Its seclusion in the collections of the counts of Schönborn for over 250 years accounts in good part for the painting’s excellent state of preservation.
Lothar Franz Graf von Schönborn, Schloss Weissenstein, near Pommersfelden (by 1719–d. 1729; inv., 1719, no. 57, as "Der Verlohrne Sohn mit seinem Bruder von der gleichen Grösse. V. Chavalier Schvvarz."); Grafen von Schönborn, Schloss Weissenstein (from 1729); by descent to Grafen von Schönborn-Wiesentheid, Schloss Weissenstein (by 1861–1942; cat., 1861, no. XI, as "Portrait d'un homme et d'un jeune garçon," by Christoph. Schwarz; cat., 1894, as by Michael Sweerts); Dr. Karl Graf von Schönborn-Wiesentheid, Schloss Weissenstein and Schloss Wiesentheid (1942–at least 1970); [Michael Tollemache, London, until 1981; sold to Wrightsman]; Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, New York (1981–84)
Rome. Museo di Palazzo Venezia. "Michael Sweerts e i bamboccianti," 1958–59?, no. 56 (lent by the Schönborn collection, Pommersfelden).
Rotterdam. Museum Boymans. "Michael Sweerts en Tijdgenoten," October 4–November 23, 1958, no. 55 (lent by Rudolf [sic?] Graf von Schönborn-Wiesentheid, Schloss Weiler).
Rudolf Bys. Die Gemäldesammlung des Lothar Franz von Schönborn in Pommersfelden. 1719, no. 57 [published in Ref. Bott 1997], as "Der Verlohrne Sohn mit seinem Bruder von der gleichen Größe. V. Chavalier Schvvarz".
Otto Mündler. Catalogue de tableaux de la galerie des Cte de Schönborn à Pommersfelden. [Paris?], 1861, p. 28, no. XI, as "Portrait d'un homme et d'un jeune garçon" by Christoph. Schwarz.
Theodor Frimmel. Kleine Galeriestudien. Vol. 1, Bamberg, 1892, pp. 67, 77.
W[ilhelm]. Martin. "Michiel Sweerts als Schilder. Proeve van een Biografie en een Catalogus van zijn Schilderijen." Oud-Holland 25 (1907), p. 153, no. 22, as "Een der Werken van Barmhartigheid" by Michiel Sweerts; notes that it was catalogued by Frimmel in 1894; believes it to be part of a series depicting the Seven Acts of Mercy, mentioned in the inventory of the estate of Agneta Deutz, who died in 1692.
E[duard]. Trautscholdt inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 32, Leipzig, 1938, p. 349.
Walther Bernt. Die niederländischen Maler des 17. Jahrhunderts. Vol. 3, Munich, 1948, unpaginated, no. 812, ill.
Rolf Kultzen. "Michael Sweerts (1624–1664)." PhD diss., Universität Hamburg, 1954, no. 88 [manuscripts in Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, The Hague, and Biblioteca Hertziana, Rome; see Ref. Liedtke 1992 (MMA Journal)].
Michael Sweerts en Tijdgenoten. Exh. cat., Museum Boymans. Rotterdam, 1958, pp. 58–60, no. 55, fig. 56.
Walther Bernt. The Netherlandish Painters of the Seventeenth Century. London, 1970, vol. 3, p. 115, no. 1152, ill.
Walther Bernt. Die Niederländischen Maler und Zeichner des 17. Jahrhunderts. Vol. 3, 4th, rev. ed. Munich, 1980, p. 28, no. 1232, ill.
Walter A. Liedtke. "'Clothing the Naked' by Michiel Sweerts." Apollo 117 (January 1983), pp. 21–23, pl. VI.
Walter Liedtke inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1984–1985. New York, 1985, pp. 25–26, ill. (color).
Introduction by Walter A. Liedtke inFlemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992, pp. 27, 292–93, no. 94, ill. (color).
Walter Liedtke. "Addenda to 'Flemish Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art'." Metropolitan Museum Journal 27 (1992), pp. 107–10, fig. 7.
Rolf Kultzen. Michael Sweerts, Brussels 1618–Goa 1664. Ed. Diane L. Webb. Doornspijk, The Netherlands, 1996, p. 5 n. 34, p. 57 n. 17, pp. 73–75, 115, 125–26, no. 120, pl. 120 and colorpl. XXIX.
Katharina Bott. Rudolf Bys, Fürtrefflicher Gemähld- und Bilder-Schatz: "Die Gemäldesammlung des Lothar Franz von Schönborn in Pommersfelden". Weimar, 1997, p. 128, no. 445, ill.
Jonathan Bikker. "The Deutz Brothers, Italian Paintings and Michiel Sweerts: New Information from Elisabeth Coymans's 'Journael'." Simiolus 26, no. 4 (1998), pp. 296, 298, fig. 10.
Laura Laureati inDa Caravaggio a Ceruti: La scena di genere e l'immagine dei 'pitocchi' nella pittura italiana. Ed. Francesco Porzio. Exh. cat., Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia. Milan, 1998, p. 335, under no. 31.
Walter Liedtke et al. Vermeer and the Delft School. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2001, p. 393, fig. 287, under no. 75.
Eric M. Zafran inMichael Sweerts (1618–1664). Ed. Duncan Bull. Exh. cat., Rijksmuseum. Amsterdam, 2002, pp. 63, 66 n. 38, fig. 62.
Peter C. Sutton. Michael Sweerts (1618–1664). Ed. Duncan Bull. Exh. cat., Rijksmuseum. Amsterdam, 2002, pp. 158, 160, under no. XXIX.
Everett Fahy inThe Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, pp. 128–30, no. 36, ill. (color).
Walter Liedtke. "Toward a New Edition of Flemish Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Munuscula Amicorum: Contributions on Rubens and His Colleagues in Honour of Hans Vlieghe. Ed. Katlijne van der Stighelen. Vol. 2, Turnhout, Belgium, 2006, pp. 669, 673.
Walter Liedtke. Vermeer: The Complete Paintings. Antwerp, 2008, pp. 45, 129, fig. 21c.
Keith Christiansen inPhilippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 36.