Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Finding Michaelina Wautier

Michaelina Wautier (c. 1617-1689)

One year from today, on 1 June 2018, the Rubens House museum (Antwerp) will open the first survey exhibition of a "lost" Baroque painter, Michaelina Wautier. 

Michaelina Wautier, 1649
Of course Wautier hasn't been entirely lost, though recognition of the painter has been very long in coming.

In her comprehensive survey of "the fortunes of women painters and their work," first published in 1979, Germaine Greer includes Wautier even while noting that only four works by Wautier were known to exist, one surviving only in an engraving (The Obstacle Race).

The situation today is somewhat improved. Almost nothing is known about Michaelina Wautier's life, aside from her dates of birth and death. She was probably born in Mons, capital city of Hainault, in 1617, lived and worked in Brussels, had an elder brother who was also a painter, and died in Brussels in 1689. Unique for seventeenth-century women painters, Wautier painted in all contemporary genres, including portrait, history, still life, and genre painting.

Four paintings by Wautier were commission by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1647 to 1656; a 1659 inventory of his collection includes one work with a mythological theme, The Triumph of Bacchus (1650), and three saints' portraits, St. Joachim Reading, St. Joachim with a Book, and Saint Joseph. (Today, the Triumph of Bacchus and two portraits, one of Joachim and the St. Joseph, are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, while the portrait of Saint Joachim with a book, also in the Kunsthistorisches, survives only in an etching.)

But after her lifetime, Michaelina Wautier's name, if not her work, disappeared. As Julie Baumgardner notes, Wautier's surviving work was mostly misattributed, to her brother Christopher, for example, or to Artemisia Gentileschi.

Aside from the seventeenth-century inventory of Duke Leopold's collection, information about her work is still scarce. A cycle of five paintings representing the five senses is known from two nineteenth-century sales: "The five individual works on canvas date from 1650 and all (or most) of them are believed to be signed and dated. They share the same dimensions (68 x 58 cm or 70 x 61 cm) and were twice auctioned as a series in Valenciennes (France) in the nineteenth century. The series belonged in 1883 to the collection of a ‘M. de Malherbe’, from which they were sold in 1898 to a certain Jean-Baptiste Foucart." In 1899 this cycle of paintings was mentioned in a magazine for visual art (Zeithschrift für Bildende Kunst), but the paintings have since disappeared.

In 1905, Walter Shaw Sparrow includes a self-portrait by Wautier in his three-volume Women Painters of the World, but he identifies it as a "portrait (executed by herself) of Artemisia Gentileschi, who lived for a time in England and worked for Charles the First." (Today this 1649 self-portrait is held in a private collection.)

By the time that Greer included a paragraph about Wautier in her history of women artists--and the obstacles they faced in their pursuit of their art--the situation had not much changed. Greer included a small black-and-white reproduction of Wautier's 1646 Portrait of a Man and referred to an engraving of her painting of Don Andrea Cantelmo, from 1643. She also mentions the inventory of Duke Leopold, but noted that it included only "two religious half figures."

The Triumph of Bacchus,
Michaelina Wautier, 1650
Even today, even on the eve of the Wautier exhibition, the exact number of her surviving works isn't clear. Estimates vary from 26 to 29 to 30. But things are looking up for this "long-lost" artist. 

Her Portrait of Martino Martini (1654) was recently sold at auction for £318,000. Baumgardner reports having seen Wautier's Portrait of a Young Man with a Pipe (1656) at a booth at the European Fine Art Fair, where the gallery owner Sander Bijl "is selling (or sold, and quite hush about either way) the 'Smoking Youth.'"

The 2018 exhibition will not only display Wautier's work but will provide the occasion for a catalogue raisonné, prepared by Katlijne Van der Stighelen of the University of Leuven, who is also curating the Rubens House exhibition.

In view of the coming exhibition, there is currently a worldwide search for six of Wautier's "lost" paintings: the five paintings depicting the five senses, and a floral scene, Garland with Butterfly, last displayed in 1960. 

According to the notice posted by CODART, the international group of curators of Dutch and Flemish Art, "In 1985, according to the catalogue of floral still lifes by Hairs, the painting was part of the collection of Parisian gallery owner Benito Pardo. After 1985, however, the panel disappeared from view."

It will be interesting to follow the story of of the search for Wautier's works, in preparation for the 2018 exhibit.

A Swag of Flowers,
Michaelina Wautier, 1652

Update: Here's a link to the Rubens House Museum exhibit, "Michaelina, Baroque's Leading Lady"--luckily, there's a video posted online that "takes you through" the exhibit, and with any luck, it will remain online after the exhibit has ended.

Update, 25 June 2018: A newly discovered painting by Michaelina Wautier! For the story, click here.

Update, 2 December 2022: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is currently hosting the first exhibition of Michaelina Wautier's work in the U.S., "Michaelina Wautier and The Five Senses: Innovations in 17th-Century Flemish Painting." The year-long show opened in November 2022. For Milton Esterow's excellent New York Times review, "For Centuries, Michaelina Wautier's Art Was Forgotten, or Credited to Men. No More," click here

And, clearly, the search for Wautier's five paintings of the senses has been successful . . . I missed this announcement, from 2021: "Michaelina Wautier's Five Senses Reunited in Boston"!