Head of a Woman
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Michael Sweerts
Flemish, about 1654
Oil on panel
19 3/8 x 15 1/16 in.

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A woman, her thin hair tightly wrapped in a white scarf, looks out at the viewer with teary eyes and a toothless smile. The urban poor of Rome and the peasants of the neighboring countryside inspired Michael Sweerts during his stay in Italy in the mid-1600s. The practice of painting the lower classes was relatively new at the time, and pictures of the poor were often derisive caricatures. Sweerts, however, treated his subject with compassion, vividly capturing the woman's inner beauty while accurately recording her external appearance: the loose skin, thinning hair, and wart on the left side of her face.

Although the painting is highly finished, Sweerts's rich brushwork is evident in alternately blended and separated strokes of different shades, creating a strong sense of three-dimensional form. This brushwork is especially striking in the head scarf and the collar.