Mystery surrounds Sweerts, a result not only of the paintings themselves, but also of his biography. He was born in Brussels but spent a great deal of his life in Rome, where he certainly resided from 1646-55. He then returned briefly to his native city, where he founded an academy of drawing. Around 1660 he joined the Société des Missions Etrangères, a group of missionaries dedicated to the spread of Christianity in the Far East.
While preparing the journey to the Far East Sweerts spent several months in Amsterdam in 1661, although perhaps already in 1660. In December 1661 he was in Marseilles and in January his ship departed for Palestine, where he was expelled from the mission for misconduct. Nothing is known about the last two years of his life. In the Société’s archives we find mention only of his death in 1664 in Goa, then a Portuguese colony in India.
Sweerts developed his painting style while in Rome. In addition to portraits, he also painted scenes of everyday street life in the manner of the so-called Bamboccianti. His pictures are characterised by a strong contrast between the primarily dark, summarily painted background and the main motif, which is generally strongly lit and more carefully executed. Another hallmark is the great calm and almost classical dignity his work emanates, despite the low subject matter. These figures are depicted against a plain, dark background with the head turned to one side and the light entering from the left. Among the finest examples is Boy in a Hat in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.
The present canvas does not form part of that series but the treatment of the light and modelling derives from the artist’s experience in Italy.