Michaelina Wautier, “Triumph of Bacchus” (ca. 1643–1659)(All images courtesy Museum aan de Stroom)

BRUSSELS — An oft-repeated tagline throughout the promotion for “Michaelina: Baroque’s Leading Lady” is “Mysterious Michaelina”. The first-ever retrospective of the work of Baroque artist Michaelina Wautier (1604–89)—a joint enterprise between the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) and the Rubenshuis, in Antwerp, Belgium—has very little material to work with. Scant documentary evidence means the only biographical details we have indicate that Wautier was born in Mons, Belgium; that she moved to Brussels after 1640 with her brother Charles (1609–1703); and that she probably shared a studio with him. Both remained unmarried and lived in a mansion near the Kapellekerk (Chapel Church). Only around thirty works have been attributed as autograph, a situation perhaps compounded by Wautier’s marked accomplishment across genres—what few female painters there were at this time were usually confined to decorative floral work—and stylistic similarity to her brother, so that until only very recently Wautier has remained largely unknown in art history.

Curated by foremost Wautier expert Katlijne Van der Stighelen, the exhibition is part of the city’s cultural festival and tourism drive, titled “Antwerp Baroque 2018: Rubens Inspires”. Much emphasis is placed on the retrospective being a “world premier”; and on the organizers’ attempts to locate all known works, spearheaded by a campaign launched in 2017 specifically to locate “The Five Senses” series (1650) and “Garland with a Butterfly” (1652), which remains unsuccessful. In June, the emergence of Wautier’s genre piece “Everyone his fancy” at Van Ham auction house in Cologne, Germany, stirred enormous publicity to this end. That this painting is clearly a last-minute addition here, with no caption number or mention in the literature, suggests its acquisition for the show was more touch and go than previously considered. The show is situated not at any of the usual Baroque centers, such as the Rubenshuis, but in the strikingly modern, Neutelings Riedijk Architects-designed, 200-foot-high MAS tower in the city’s recently developed dockland area. In this museum designed for multimedia displays, Wautier’s work is sandwiched between floors that span from cutting-edge contemporary art to historical Antwerp city artifacts.

Michaelina Wautier, Self-portrait (ca. 1640) (Private collection)

Similarly, down the road at the Museum of Contemporary Art, painter Luc Tuymans has curated an exhibition mixing Baroque behemoths such as Rubens, Van Dyck and Caravaggio with contemporary art. This certainly appears a carefully calibrated campaign to make Baroque art appeal to a wider audience than those who come specifically for it.

The exhibition also rides on the back of the current push to highlight strong female cultural figures. The programmers may not have consciously decided to focus on a female artist, yet in a year when London’s National Gallery’s £3.6 million purchase of a self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi was accompanied by statistics highlighting the fact that male artists starkly outnumber female artists in the gallery’s collection, gender is a front-and-center issue in our collective consciousness. It would be unrealistic to suggest that the show will not benefit from such timeliness. Indeed, tagged on the end of the exhibit is a room entitled “Gender Questions”, which discusses the various artistic disciplines open to women in the 17th century.

Michaelina Wautier, “Portrait of Two Girls as the Saints Agnes and Dorothy” (ca. 1650) (Collection of Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp)

What emerges throughout is the impression that Wautier’s gender, combined with elevated social status, wealth, and, somewhat ironically, her superlative talent, have all contributed to her obscurity.

This exhibit of about 30 works pretty much curates itself; it’s divided into portraits, history paintings, and genre and floral work. The existing work is of consistent and uniform quality, as if Wautier arrived on the Baroque scene fully formed. Stighelen, the curator, suggests that Charles Wautier trained in Italy, and questions whether Michaelina may also have had access to live models through an Academy established in Brussels in 1650 — despite the fact that women were only admitted to the Academy in the 19th century — due to the accomplished anatomy shown in her monumental “Triumph of Bacchus”.

The exclusive circles in which she moved offered guaranteed patronage, with four of her works recorded in Vienna in the collection of Count of Archduke Leopold-Willem. A couple of portraits of commanding officers also appear here. Yet it is easy to speculate how societal structures, while facilitating connections and patronage, similarly may have prohibited her movement and progression in the same way as, say, Rubens or Van Dyck, with the result that there were very few written accounts of her work. As noted somewhat obtusely in the exhibition’s literature, “making a furore as a female artist in the 17th century was almost an impossible task.”

Michaelina Wautier, “Everyone to his taste” (ca. 1655) (Collection of The Phoebus Foundation)

The work itself is so accomplished that it’s virtually indistinguishable from that of Wautier’s better-known male contemporaries. Her portraits, history paintings, and genre pieces feature the distinct Baroque brushwork technique built up from a brown ground, using transparent washes for dark areas of hair, armour and drapery, while flesh is modelled in a sanguine palette—characteristically using reds and ochres for lowlights around the features—physiognomies most recognizably Dutch.

Bearing close similarities to commissioned portraits in style, scale, and bust format, religious figures such as “Saint Joseph” (ca.1650–56) or “Saint Joachim reading a book” (ca.1650–56) have added attributes, while “Study of a young man” and “Study of a young woman” have none. Curiously, for preparatory studies, these works are as finished as the other bust portraits. Larger historical work behaves in a similarly chameleonic manner: the monumental “Triumph of Bacchus” is as writhing and grotesque as any Rubens, though not surpassing, while “Annunciation” (1659) could fit right in with the 16th Century Baroque Annunciation canon. Wautier is remarkable for her unique assuredness across genres — perhaps a requirement for overcoming the limitations presented by her gender and obligation to fulfill a variety of commissions—and blends almost seamlessly with her contemporaries. An area where she can be said to really sing, however, is in her strong characterizations of her sitters; the youths pictured in “Everyone his fancy” and “Portrait of two girls as Saints Agnes and Dorothy” have an utterly charming treatment.

Michaelina Wautier, “Saint John the Evangelist” (ca. 1655) (Private collection, Italy)

A close association with her brother Charles has also dampened her art historical presence. Four of Charles’s paintings appear in this retrospective, similarly spanning genres.  Were it not for the captions, one would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the siblings’ work; it is easy to believe that, if working in the same studio, both would have perpetuated something constituting a house style. All of these factors have likely contributed to the difficulty of attributing works to Michaelina.

Michaelina Wautier presents a most curious case of a criminally overlooked talent. Noting the consistent quality shown here, we cannot trace any sign of development or decline. There are no “duds” — even her study pieces are fully worked up to a high finish. With very little to work with, Stighelen and the MAS have drawn upon the mystery to create a compelling tourist attraction, stoking the hope that more works will someday come to light.

Michaelina: Baroque’s Leading Lady runs at the MAS (Hanzestedenplaats 1 2000 Antwerp, Belgium) until September 2.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...

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