With 100 Masters: Only in Canada opening at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on May 11, SCENE is celebrating the gallery's centennial by taking a sneak peek at some of the work that will be on offer.
Curatorial assistant Ali King explains why sticking one's finger in the nasal cavity of a skull has a deeper meaning:
Little is known about Michiel Sweerts's early years, but he probably had some formal art training in Brussels where he was born.
Michiel Sweerts, Self-Portrait with Skull, c. 1661. Oil on canvas. Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen's University, Kingston. (WAG)
Like many northern European painters in the seventeenth century, he travelled to Italy to continue his art studies and to visit the sites and monuments of Classical and Baroque Rome, which would become part of the Grand Tour later in the century.
His style lies somewhere between the Dutch and Flemish traditions in Rome, not fitting well into either circle. In an expression of piety, the artist depicts himself dressed in black cape and broad-brimmed hat, pointing to a skull (actually reaching into the naval cavity of the skull), which is a vanitas symbol referencing the brevity of life.
There is a dramatic edge to the self-portrait with the use of light and shadow, and the play of colour with the black of the costume set against the artist's pale and slightly flushed skin.
Sweerts looks directly out to the viewer, somewhat startled and yet deeply focused on the reminder of his own mortality as he cradles the skull. It is a remarkably straightforward and moving portrait of the artist at a critical moment in his personal life as he contemplates a new vocation.100 Masters: Only in Canada opens May 11 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.