Oud Holland

Review of: 'Glorifying a forgotten talent' (2018)

September 2019

Review of: Katlijne Van der Stighelen (ed.), Michaelina Wautier, 1604-1689: Glorifying a forgotten talent, Kontich [BAI Publishers] 2018

In most cases, it is the same artists to whom exhibitions are dedicated. The canon of artists established in the nineteenth century is invariably repeated, in the best cases to illustrate new questions or to generate new perspectives. This perpetual repetition of exhibitions of works by the same artists consolidates an increasingly shrinking canon. The outstanding position of these artists is in itself not questioned. One does not have to be a feminist to come to the conclusion that the history of art written in the nineteenth century, was marked by the misogyny of that period. Reason enough to question the art history of the great old white male, and to juxtapose the stories of artists and their patrons with the stories of female patrons and artists.1 This is particularly exciting when attention is given to early modern women in exhibitions. It is then possible to actually discover something or someone new, such as the painter Michaelina Wautier (1604-1689). The world's first major exhibition of the work of this unjustly forgotten female Baroque artist was a collaboration between two municipal museums in Antwerp: the Rubenshuis and the Museum aan de Stroom. Ben van Beneden and Marieke van Bommel, the respective directors, had the courage to offer a forum to an artist who has not yet found her due place, even in specialist literature.2 However, the two museums have not only engaged with an artist who was waiting to be discovered, but also with a scientific approach that sets standards. The foundation for this exhibition was laid by Professor Katlijne Van der Stighelen from Leuven University, who has researched Wautier for nearly 30 years. The enthusiastic interest began when Van der Stighelen came across Wautier's Triumph of Bacchus ('Bacchanal’) (fig. 1.) by chance, in the depot of the Kunsthistorisches Museum (cat. 13).

Left: Cover of Michaelina Wautier, 1604-1689: Glorifying a forgotten talent.
Middle: fig. 1 Michaelina Wautier, Triumph of Bacchus, before 1659, oil on canvas, 270 x 354 cm, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. GG-3548.
Right: fig. 2 Michaelina Wautier, Self portrait with an easel, 1640s, oil on canvas, 120 x 102 cm, private collection.

The painting was already attributed to Michaelina Wautiers at that time. But the story of its attribution, which is told in the recent catalogue, is a lesson about how strongly the conventions of thought guide the gaze. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘Bacchanal’ was regarded as the work of Cornelis Schut. At that time, however, it was discovered that this painting was, in 1659, listed in the inventory of Leopold Wilhelm of Austria (1625/32-1662), as the work of 'N. Wautiers'. In the same inventory there were other pictures listed, which were clearly attributed to Michaelina Wautier, and are now considered as works by her hand. The ‘Bacchanal’, however, remained attributed to ‘N. Wautiers’, with the initial of the name interpreted as Nicolas or Neel. The obvious stylistic connection, which Günther Heinz rightly emphasized in 1967, was not apparent before. The director of the Gemäldegalerie at that time believed that, 'a painting of such a large format could not be the work of a woman.'3 It is the merit of Günther Heinz (1927-1992) to have overcome this prejudice, but the picture remained among the 'Meister der zweiten Garnitur', in the secondary gallery, inaccessible to the museum's public. It was Gerlinde Gruber, also an author of the current catalogue, who made the 'Bacchanal' accessible to the public, in 2009.

However, it is not only this one picture by Wautier that impresses; if anything, it is her tremendous versatility in a time when specialization was the rule. Van der Stighelen succeeded in illustrating this versatility in 22 works: it is a broad spectrum from portraits and genre paintings in small formats, to more ambitious canvases with subjects from history, religion and mythology. The encounter with the originals is a pleasure, because the approach to the pictures reveals a painterly virtuosity that can explain why these paintings are so touching. Unfortunately, the exhibition is over, and so many of the masterpieces that were on display will disappear for years, receding back to private collections. What remains however, is the beautifully designed and well-printed catalogue published by BAI and the Rubenshuis.

The book begins with a prologue by Ben van Beneden, in which he concisely shows how Wautier's life and work differed from the careers of other famous female artists in her day. What distinguishes her, apart from her genre-spanning diversity is her courage to paint exceptional subjects, concerning both topics and the formats of the paintings (p. 11), which most of her male colleagues did not attempt. The next section, also the first chapter of the book, is dedicated to the artist's biography, of which there are only a few telling sources. Katlijne Van der Stighelen succeeds in combining the facts into a dense and lively narrative. While the yield of facts is to be praised, it is above all the readability of this text that is to be commended. The visual prelude to the chapter is Michaelina's self-portrait (fig. 2), on which she shows herself sitting in front of the easel, with a palette on which all the colours needed to paint the incarnate are arranged. The skilfully selected image details interspersed within the text, also contribute to this appearance of liveliness. For example, the group on the far right of 'Bacchanal', shown in detail (p. 23), conveys an eloquent impression of how independently Wautier refers to templates. She obviously knew the pictorial language of Rubens. Michaelina probably saw one of the numerous versions of Rubens' Return of Diana from the hunt, or another of Rubens’ pictures of a faun grabbing women. But she translates this motif into her very own pictorial language.

Van der Stighelen traces the career path of the painter, who – together with her younger brother Charles (1609-1703) – found her way to the court in Brussels. She initially lived with him when she came to Brussels in 1642 and it is likely that they ran a workshop together. The sources used for the reconstruction of her career are not only quoted but also partly depicted. In the, just as lively second chapter, Van der Stighelen relates the story of Wautier's early fame, and disgraceful oblivion already hinted at, and shows how an engraved portrait contributed to the spread of her fame and promoted her career. In the third chapter Francesca del Torre Scheuch and Gerlinde Gruber dedicate themselves to the kunstkammer of Leopold Wilhelm, in which the paintings of Michaelina Wautiers, today in Vienna, once had their place. The noble surrounding offered by this famous art collection once again illustrates the great recognition the painter received during her lifetime, although the exact location of her paintings is unfortunately unknown. In the fourth chapter, Jahel Sanzalazar addresses the question of what influence other artists had on the careers of Michaelina and Charles Wautier, who, thanks to the mediation of David Teniers, for example, was given the opportunity to paint Leopold Wilhelm's portrait. Sanzalazar also looks at the stylistic influences of other artists who have found expression in Michaelina Wautier's work. She had obviously studied paintings by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674), who combined Rubens' style with the technique of Theodoor van Loon (1581/82-1649). Michaelina and her brother also seem to have studied pictures by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652). In the fifth chapter, Van der Stighelen explores the flexibility of early modern female artists who had to find their place and assert themselves in a consistently misogynous society. In the sixth chapter, Martha Howell shows the role women played in the early modern European art market, and how the patriarchal attitude of art historical research wrongly ignored the significance of women for art and this art market. In the seventh chapter Martine van Elk looks at women in the early modern public sphere and shows that the sources, when thoroughly read, show a different picture of early modern women's lives that are all too often described as completely unfree. Van der Stighelen uses the eighth chapter, which precedes the catalogue section, to once again demonstrate the versatility of Michaelina Wautier, and to draw attention to the practical side of the production of paintings.

Photographic details from the paintings are used to illustrate how the impression of light and materiality is achieved in the paintings through the use of paint. It also becomes clear that Wautier's style is eclectic. However, although her work is influenced by many artists and their styles, from Philippe de Champaigne, to Rubens and Ribera, the very essence of her own paintings, the emotionality of her figures always remains, just as the specific painterly style which is so obvious within her paintings. It is this specific handling of paint that makes looking at her pictures a great visual experience. The painterly quality of the paintings can also be seen in the catalogue's illustrations. At the same time, the illustrations are integrated into the text in the sense of a visual argumentation. Paul van Calster, who was responsible for the graphic design of the book, succeeded in making this clear in the book's design and the arrangement of its images.

The last and most extensive part is the catalogue, which makes up almost half of the book. It not only illustrates Wautier's few dozen or so paintings, but also places the works in the period's historical context. Michaelina's paintings are not only compared to those of her brother, but also to those of Jacob van Oost I, Michael Sweerts and Philippe de Champaigne. In addition, early modern women's lives are vividly illustrated in pictures, books and documents. It is a special merit of the exhibition organizers to have also taken into account the material tradition of historical sources, which is exemplified in the account book of the Brussels dance master Adam-Pierre de la Grené (cat. 40), who, according to his notes, bought a 'Bacchus' by 'Mademoiselle Wautier' for 15 guilders, on 17 January 1650. It would go too far to summarise the new insights gained from this exhibition and book project. The book is the first monograph of the long-neglected artist Michaelina Wautier, and constitutes the basis for further research. It is not only an important contribution to the history of early modern women, but also an important contribution to the history of Flemish art, which from now on, can no longer be told without a reference to the painter Michaelina Wautier.

Nils Büttner
Professor of Art History
Staatlichen Akademie der Bildenden Künste

1 Another good example is the exhibition 'Women: Art & power: Three women from the House of Habsburg', Ambrass Castle, Innsbruck, 14 June-6 September 2018.
2 So, for example, Michaelina's name is missing from the register of classical standard works on the art of her time, see H. Vlieghe, Flemish art and architecture: 1585-1700, New Haven 1998.
3 G. Heinz, ‘Studien über Jan van den Hoecke und die Malerei der Niederländer in Wien’, Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien 63 (1967), pp. 109-151, spec. p. 149.

Nils Büttner, ‘Review of: K. Van der Stighelen (ed.), Michaelina Wautier, 1604-1689: Glorifying a forgotten talent’, Oud Holland Reviews, September 2019.