Giving a Lost Baroque
Master Her Due

Michaelina Wautier, Self-Portrait, 1649

MAS | Museum aan de Stroom
Michaelina Wautier, Self-Portrait, 1649
Organizing the first retrospective for Michaelina Wautier, a forgotten 17th century Dutch woman artist, offered a unique (and exciting) set of curatorial challenges.

Organizing the first retrospective for Michaelina Wautier, a forgotten 17th century Dutch woman artist, offered a unique (and exciting) set of curatorial challenges.

MAS - Museum aan de Stroom

Michaelina Wautier, Self-Portrait, 1649

Bacchanal was instantly eye-catching, and Van der Stighelen found it odd that a work of such masterful skill should languish in absolute obscurity.

Katlijne Van der Stighelen was looking for a portrait by Baroque Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck, not a nine-by-eleven-foot mythological painting by a forgotten seventeenth century woman artist. During the Belgian art history professor’s visit to the storeroom of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna twenty-five years ago, a curator was leading her to the unexhibited Van Dyck when they passed a monumental work by another artist’s hand. Bacchanal (c. 1656) was instantly eye-catching, and Van der Stighelen found it odd that a work of such masterful skill should languish in absolute obscurity.

“It was completely by accident that I came across the painting by Michaelina,” Van der Stighelen told Art & Object. This image depicting a procession to Bacchus, the god of wine, stuck with her as did the mysterious identity of its author. The curator mentioned in passing that the painting was by Michaelina Wautier, a largely unknown Baroque artist active in Brussels.

Though her curiosity was piqued, Van der Stighelen told herself to postpone researching this painter as a post-retirement project. It would surely be a wild goose chase turning up few identifiable works or biographical source materials, she thought. But the Bacchanal beckoned her; in her mind it yearned to emerge from storage and onto a (sizable) gallery wall.

The professor’s initial instincts were not wrong. After over two decades of research, Van der Stighelen has yet to locate any of Wautier’s personal documents. The main source of information about her is an inventory of the art collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, a contemporary patron of the arts; there her four works represent the sole woman artist and are in good company among paintings by Titian, Raphael, and Rubens.

Arduous research scouring hundreds of auction catalogs (among other sources) helped Van der Stighelen piece together an oeuvre of around 30 Wautier paintings with an impressively wide range of subjects: portraits, genre scenes, still lifes, and history paintings.

Merely cataloging Wautier’s body of work would not bring recognition to this painter long forgotten by art history, however, or unearth Bacchanal from the depths of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Van der Stighelen realized that an exhibition would do far more to illuminate Wautier beyond the admiration of a single scholar and, indeed, the artist is now being feted with her first retrospective—Michaelina: Baroque’s Leading Lady—at the Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp in partnership with the Rubens House.

Organizing an exhibition for an overlooked woman artist, however, proved to be a challenge no less grueling than the preliminary research.

“You are familiar with what’s happening in museums today,” said Van der Stighelen. “Every curator wants to organize a huge exhibition attracting many people and gaining a lot of money. And you can only realize something like that when you’re dealing with so-called ‘very important artists’.” Without any point of reference for publicizing an artist like Michaelina Wautier to the art-loving public, the obscure Baroque painter was a hard sell to museum curators.

The difficulty of arranging exhibitions for lesser-known women artists is all too familiar to Advancing Women Artists (AWA), a Florence-based nonprofit organization actively devoted to identifying, restoring and exhibiting art by women in Italian museum storage rooms since 2009. “Exhibition is always the final step in a multi-tiered process. The long-awaited Plautilla Nelli exhibition at the Uffizi Galleries in 2017, for example, was a three-month long show that was over a decade in the making,” explained Dr. Jane Fortune, founder of AWA, to Art & Object. Though Nelli is the earliest known Florentine woman painter, recognition of her work has been scarce. “My main hurdles have always been a lack of information about the pieces of art and the artist herself, a lack of knowledge, and sometimes a lack of appreciation for their work.”

Bacchanal
MAS - Museum aan de Stroom

Michealina Wautier, Bacchanal, c. 1656

Installation view of Michaelina: Baroque's Leading Lady
Ans Brys

Installation view of Michaelina: Baroque's Leading Lady at the Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp

Portrait of Two Girls as the Saints Agnes and Dorothy.
MAS - Museum aan de Stroom

Michaelina Wautier, Portrait of Two Girls as the Saints Agnes and Dorothy (n.d.)

Installation view of Michaelina: Baroque's Leading Lady
Victoriano Moreno

Installation view of Michaelina: Baroque's Leading Lady at the Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp

Installation view of Michaelina: Baroque's Leading Lady
Sigrid Spinnox

Installation view of Michaelina: Baroque's Leading Lady at the Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp

Van der Stighelen’s experience was no different. Her proposals to exhibit Wautier’s work—either as part of a group show or as a small-scale solo exhibition—were refused by 12 museums. Half of these museums were in the artist’s native Belgium, two were in the United States (including a major museum devoted to exclusively women artists), another museum that said no has had four Wautier works in its permanent collection for over a century. A shortage of funding was often claimed as an impediment, other times it was simply because no one had ever heard of Michaelina Wautier.

“I was expecting that some museum would say ‘yes, we’ll incorporate her work into an exhibition of, for example, seventeenth century women artists,” Van der Stighelen recalled. “We’ll show her work with paintings by Artemisia [Gentileschi] or Judith Leyster,’ or something like that. I was so disappointed over the years, that I would have already been very pleased hearing that Michaelina’s work would have been just one fifth of the exhibition.”

In the end, Van der Stighelen credits the mounting of Wautier’s current retrospective as much to coincidence as to the artist’s masterful range, skilled brushwork, and the illustrious provenance of her works. The city of Antwerp happened to be launching a well-funded program devoted to appreciation of local Baroque arts, titled Antwerp Baroque 2018, Rubens Inspires.

“There was a lot of money, and [a Michaelina Wautier show] was something that could be added to their program,” she noted. “Something that could make their program more interesting. If this coincidence hadn’t been there, I’m really convinced that there would never have been an exhibition.” Van der Stighelen contends that it is no easier today than, say, twenty years ago to mount exhibitions for underpublicized women painters and that within the realm of female artists there are clear hierarchies. Italian women, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, are attention-grabbers; Frida Kahlo is always a surefire hit.

Fortune, on the other hand, is more optimistic. “As a sign of the times, and hopefully in response to the work we have been doing, museum administrators have become more attentive to representing art by women in recent years.”

Time will tell whether Michaelina Wautier’s works will feature in future exhibitions, or if her paintings regularly grace gallery walls instead of storerooms. What is certain, though, is that bringing her and other forgotten artists to light is a collaborative effort—shared by academics, curators, and an open-minded public—willing to take a new look at what has long been invisible. Prods Van der Stighelen, “museums need a lot of courage to go for it.”

About the Author

Karen Chernick

Karen Chernick is an arts and culture journalist who loves a good story.