On May 17, 2018 Van Ham auction house in Cologne, Germany sold a painting depicting two boys, one holding an egg with a pastry stick in one hand away from his friend. With the other hand, the boy almost pushes him backwards while gazing at him over his shoulder in a charmingly dynamic genre piece of Baroque art. Titled “Everyone his fancy (Elk zijn meug)” (c.1655), it was initially consigned as by the Flemish painter Jacob Van Oost. In March 2018, it was inspected by Katlijne Van der Stighelen of the University of Leuven, the most eminent scholar on the little known Baroque female artist Michaelina Wautier (1604–89) who declared it an autograph Wautier on stylistic grounds; her convincing argument was published by Van Ham in the auction catalogue. At auction, it far surpassed its estimate of €60,000 (~$69,000) and was bought for €486,400 (~$562,000), including fees by the Phoebus Foundation.
The announcement of this ‘discovery’ has been most fortuitous: barely weeks after the sale the painting joins the first ever survey exhibition on Wautier, Michaelina: Baroque’s Leading Lady (until September 2), curated by Stighelen as a joint enterprise between the Rubens House and the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) in Antwerp. It forms part of a wider cultural drive by the city entitled Antwerp Baroque 2018: Rubens Inspires. This year, we also see the first-ever published monograph on Wautier, compiled by Stighelen; there around 30 known extant works, though the number is disputed among historians. In this context, the ‘discovery’ of new work by the relatively unheard of female painter could not be more timely. The exhibition seeks to gather as many works as possible, and a year ago the Rubens House launched a campaign specifically to find six paintings: a series of canvases on The Five Senses, dating to 1650 and known to us only through a greyscale image in a 1975 auction catalogue, and the still life “Garland with Butterfly” (1652). It appears that “Everyone his fancy” may have been destined for the show as soon as curator Stighelen attributed it in March of this year with the purchase by the philanthropic Pheobus Foundation — dedicated to the preservation, study, and accessibility of fine artworks and with many pieces displayed in Antwerp collections — surely an aiding factor. The Art Newspaper also reported that a space to hang the piece was left in the exhibition anticipating its arrival.
We should consider its high sale price relative to the auction estimate. Van Ham, whether anticipating the potential sale and display in the upcoming major retrospective or not, had its asking price smashed, indicating some competition amongst buyers. To indulge in speculation for a moment, there are several possible reasons behind its desirability, not least the factors of mystery, rarity, and quality associated with Wautier. First, MAS challenges us to name a female artist in the 17th century; they were an extremely rare occurrence. They muse: “Glass ceilings have been around for years.” Very little is known about her life other than she was born in Mons, capital city of Hainaut, and moved to Brussels soon after 1640, probably operating in the same studio as her brother Charles (1609–1703). Despite her exceptional skill evidenced in extant works, her name fell into obscurity after death with several works misattributed to her brother, for example, or to Artemisia Gentileschi. In her comprehensive survey of women painters in 1979, Germain Greer states that only four works by Wautier were known.
It is her skill which may also inadvertently contribute to this obscurity and misattribution. Wautier was apparently astonishingly adept in many different genres, formats, and sizes. With only a small (and disputed) pool of surviving works spanning in subject portraits, genre pieces, flower arrangements, and religious and mythological scenes, one might understand that there are not many with which to compare should a new work arise, hence a hesitation in attribution. Appearing in the MAS exhibition is her most ambitious surviving work, “Triumph of Bacchus” (c. 1655), of a scale, complexity, and assured execution to match her male contemporaries, appearing herself as the only figure looking at the viewer. It clearly shares the distinctive glow of flesh and riotously dynamic, kinetic composition of many colourful characters, which distinguishes the work of Peter Paul Rubens and Jacob Jordaens, yet she was capable too of small, decorative floral work, which was usually the expected scope for female painters.
The buzz surrounding the discovery of “Everyone his fancy” will certainly generate plenty of great publicity for this milestone survey on a bafflingly overlooked artist; especially a female one romantically long lost in art history. It is also hoped that new confidence and interest in Wautier may contribute to more eventually emerging from the woodwork.