by Roderick Conway Morris

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Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
Two Girls as SS Agnes and Dorothy by Michaelina Wautier

Woman of Mastery

By Roderick Conway Morris
ANTWERP, Belgium 20 August 2018


Nearly thirty years ago, the art historian Katlijne Van der Stighelen came upon an extraordinary mid-seventeenth century 'Triumph of Bacchus' in the deposits of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Executed by a forgotten Flemish woman artist, Michaelina Wautier, this enormous canvas – containing both male and female nudes and semi-draped figures (one of them, it later became clear, a self-portrait of the artist herself) – turned out to be one of four paintings by the artist that had formed part of the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm's collection. It launched Van der Stighelen on a decades-long quest that has triumphantly culminated in Michaelina: Baroque's leading lady, the first every exhibition of Michaelina Wautier, hosted by Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp.

Van der Stighelen discovered, as she gradually unearthed other works, that Michaelina was unique among female artists of the period – and even unusual among male artists – in being equally accomplished in painting portraits, intimate genre studies, floral still-lifes and large-scale religious and mythological canvases. Nearly all of Michaelina's works that have been identified so far, mostly in private collections, are in the exhibition. The show now includes a brand new find, discovered shortly after the inauguration, 'Elk Zijn meug' (Each to his Taste), a charming genre picture of two small boys. The hope is that yet more works will now come to light as a result of the exhibition and its exemplary catalogue, which has illustrations and analysis of all the currently known pieces and valuable information about the cultural and social milieu in which the artist pursued her career.

Tantalizingly little is known about Michaelina's life. She was born into a prosperous, well-connected family of merchants and property owners in Mons in 1604, the only girl among eight brothers. It was not until she was about forty that she moved to Brussels to join her brother Charles, with whom she lived in a town house near the Kapellekerk for the rest of her life. Charles, who was five years younger, was also an artist, and it is evident that both brother and sister enjoyed the same high level of artistic training. Charles was described in a Brussels guild document as 'foreign trained', and this and the style of their work suggests that he, and possibly both of them, spent time in Italy. A number of his paintings are also on display here.

The most documented period of Michaelina's long career is between 1643 and 1659, from her late thirties to mid-fifties. Given the paucity of other biographical information, it is fortunate that she signed and dated so many of her works. Archduke Leopold Wilhelm was in the Low Countries as Governor of the Spanish Netherlands between 1647 and 1656, and it was during this period that he bought the four paintings by her that are listed in the 1659 inventory of his collection, which has been a cornerstone of subsequent research on this elusive artist.

It is plausible that Michaelina began her professional career as a portraitist, at which she excelled. Among the most powerful productions on show here is her study of the celebrated Jesuit missionary Martino Martini – a personal friend of the Archduke – depicted in Chinese dress with an inscription in Chinese characters. No less impressive is her own self-portrait at her easel, only recently identified as such; an honest rendering, we can presume, given the prominence of moles on her upper lip and cheek. In these and many other works – such as her wonderful study 'Two Girls as Saints Agnes and Dorothy' and her 'Portrait of a Military Commander' – she reveals her dazzling mastery of light and of subtle skin tones.

The vibrancy and close observation of Michaelina's works suggest she painted from live models, but how she had access to nude male models remains a mystery. In around 1655 the Italian-trained artist Michael Sweerts opened an academy in Brussels, where the curriculum included drawing from nude models, but it would have been impossible at that time (and for long afterwards) for a woman to attend such sessions and in any case they post-dated Michaelina's nudes. The most likely explanation is that Michaelina and her brother Charles hired models to pose for them in the privacy of their studio at home.

Given the notice that Michaelina attracted at Archduke Leopold's Wilhelm's court and the steady stream of commissions she achieved, it is somewhat baffling that her name so rapidly sank into obscurity. A primary reason was that so many of her works were subsequently attributed to prominent male artists of the period, a fate shared by Sofonisba Anguissola, for example, despite the fame that the Cremona-born artist had won at the court of Phillip II in Spain and in her native Italy.

Thanks to this memorable exhibition and book, however, not only will no future account of the glories of the Flemish baroque be complete without the inclusion of works by Michaelina Wautier, there is also the prospect of more canvases being added to her oeuvre.

Michaelina: Baroque's Leading Lady at MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) 1 June - 2 September 2018.

Michaelina Wautier: 1604-1689: Glorifying a Forgotten Talent
pp.320. BAI NV.
Katlijne Van der Stighelen

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023