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FRAME BY FRAME

Sweet on Sweerts’s ‘Boy With a Hat’

Flemish artist Sweerts - whose style calls to mind Vermeer - was as much a mystery as his subject

Allen Phillips/Wadsworth Atheneum

HARTFORD - Remarkable how much you can tell - and can’t tell - from a face. This picture of a young boy in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum was painted by Michael Sweerts, a Flemish artist.

Sweerts enjoyed in his lifetime about as much acclaim as an artist could hope for, but he eventually chose religion over art, and was plunged into obscurity from the time of his early death, in the 1660s, until the late 20th century.

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There are only about 40 extant paintings by Sweerts. And if all this - the long period of obscurity, the early death, the small number of surviving works, above all the picture itself - is creating an itch in your mind that can be satisfied only with the name “Johannes Vermeer,’’ you’re not alone.

Links have long been drawn between Sweerts and Vermeer. And in this portrait, which instantly calls to mind the latter’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring’’ (shortly to make a rare trip from its home in the Hague to the Frick Collection in New York) they’re especially strong.

It’s more likely, say scholars, that Vermeer was influenced by Sweerts than the other way around. Both paintings are what the Dutch called “tronies.’’ They functioned more as exercises in expressiveness and painterly panache than as portraits of specific, identifiable individuals.

To our eyes, of course, that’s what makes the best of them so spellbinding: There’s a question that hovers over them - very simply, “Who was this?’’ - that can never be answered, liberating the fact-checking part of our brains, charging the space between us and the subject with congested unknowns.

Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring’’ turns to her left to look out at the viewer. Sweerts’s “Boy With a Hat,’’ by contrast, turns to his right to look off at something else, revealing the whites of his glistening eyes and, again, animating our speculative capacities. What is it that has his attention? How is it that a child’s face - notwithstanding the tattered hat and gray garb that frames it - can seem so perfect, so inviolate, so unassailable?

Sweerts (1618-64) was a fascinating, elusive character. He lived in Rome for almost 10 years, where he was influenced by the religious paintings of Caravaggio and intrigued by Roman street life. He was favored by the pope, and enjoyed great honors, but he chose to return to Brussels to set up a drawing academy. A few years later he was in Amsterdam.

His religious devotion deepened, he took to fasting, praying, and giving away his possessions, and then he joined a mission, led by Bishop Francois Pallu, to Persia.

However, he was not, according to one report, “the master of his own mind,’’ and in Isfahan, he was dismissed from the mission. He continued alone from Iran to India, and died, in the company of Portuguese Jesuits, in Goa.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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