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Michaelina Wautier and ‘The Five Senses’: Innovation in 17th-Century Flemish Painting at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA) is the first exhibition in the United States devoted to the Brussels-based female painter who, despite her unmistakable artistic talent and successful career, fell into obscurity after her death. Only recently have experts rediscovered and revalued the oeuvre of Michaelina Wautier (1604–1684), mainly thanks to the scholarship of Katlijne van der Stichelen, professor in art history at the University of Leuven in Belgium. A pioneer in the study of female artists, Van der Stichelen began researching Wautier after she accidentally encountered the painter’s monumental Bacchanal among the “Meister der zweiten Garnitur” in the storage of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. In 2018 she curated the first ever monographic exhibition dedicated to Wautier. This collaboration between the Rubens House and Antwerp’s Museum aan de Stroom which included twenty-one paintings by the artist, received extensive press coverage and placed Wautier in the public eye—at least in Europe. Today, about forty paintings are attributed to Wautier, many of which were once ascribed to male contemporaries, a number that is continuously growing. The focus of MFA’s exhibition according to the introductory wall label is to insert Wautier back “into the art historical canon and the popular consciousness” by highlighting the artist’s innovation both in terms of her unprecedented approach to the traditional subject of the five senses, as well as her individual painting techniques.
The show is centered around Wautier’s signed series The Five Senses (1650) which was rediscovered in 2020 when Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo acquired the paintings. Until then, the only visual record of the paintings was a single black-and-white reproduction of the sense of hearing from 1975. The series, which the couple has promised to MFA as a gift, are now on display in the museum’s Gallery for Innovative Scholarship used by the Center of Netherlandish Art (CNA), a research center at MFA founded in 2017 through a landmark endowment by the Van Otterloos alongside Susan and Matthew Weatherbie.
The rotating gallery space aims to present research developed at CNA and is a fundamental component of the center’s mission to collaborate with academic partners to support emerging scholars and curators. Michaelina Wautier and ‘The Five Senses’ is the first exhibition curated in this space and is the result of a unique partnership between CNA and Brown University. The exhibition was co-organized by Christopher Atkins, CNA’s Van Otterloo-Weatherbie director; Jeffrey Muller, professor of the history of art and architecture at Brown; and six of this department’s PhD students; Yannick Etoundi, Sophie Higgerson, Emily Hirsch, Regina Noto, Mohadeseh Salari Sardari, and Dandan Xu. A semester-long seminar immersed them in the process of exhibition-making; this included interpreting technical imagery, assessing conservation issues, writing for public audiences, and considering exhibition graphics and educational programming.
The collaboration is impressive both for its pedagogical approach, offering the students invaluable hands-on curatorial experience, and for its refreshing presentation of the artist, which deliberately refrains from identifying Wautier’s artistic influences and instead focuses on how The Five Senses diverged from pictorial tradition. To this end, the curators framed her works by two printed series illustrating key stages in the history of the depiction of the five senses from which Wautier’s work departs in significant ways. On the one hand, the engravings of Cornelius Cort, designed by Frans Floris and printed in 1561 by the renowned Antwerp publisher Hieronymus Cock, personify each sense as an idealized female figure surrounded by symbolic objects and accompanied by a Latin inscription. Floris’s imagery exemplifies the conventional visualization of the five senses in the latter half of the sixteenth century. On the other hand, a 1634 set of five etchings of Johannes Vliet illustrates how the subject was tackled by Dutch and Flemish artists in the early decades of the seventeenth century. Van Vliet’s representation of the senses as experienced by adult men and women in their daily life activities clearly anticipates Wautier’s approach.
Wautier innovatively bent this artistic tradition by introducing youthful protagonists—she portrays each sense as a different boy engaged in an everyday activity. Her choice to use young models, compared to the adult figures in Van Vliet’s etchings and other seventeenth-century examples, was unprecedented in the Low Countries and was likely influenced by the fiery contemporaneous philosophical debate instigated by René Descartes’s writings challenging the Aristotelian epistemic theory of the senses. Moving from Sight, depicted by a teen peering through his spectacles at his open hand, at the left to Touch, illustrated by a young sitter who looks down at his bleeding finger which he has just cut, on the right, her set follows the traditional Aristotelian hierarchy of the five senses. The half-length figures, painted from life or life studies, are positioned against a dark, neutral background and fill the picture plane, enhancing their physical presence and psychological interaction with the viewer. Wautier captures Hearing, second painting from the left, as an adolescent playing the recorder. With deliberate, thickly applied highlights the artist draws attention to the young musician’s face, his elongated fingers, and his instrument. Smell, placed in the center, is depicted by a frontal blonde boy who holds a rotten egg while pinching his nose. Wautier’s confident brushwork and expert manipulation of light is also evident in Taste pictured by a youngster taking a bite of a slice of bread, especially in the dynamic modeling of the deep folds of his cloak. In each of these paintings, Wautier effectively used short, thickly laid strokes of white paint emphasizing the most important attributes, such as the fine pair of pince-nez glasses in Sight and the bright egg in Smell.
Wautier’s exceptional Self-Portrait (1645), previously attributed to Abraham van den Tempel, joins her The Five Senses series. Comparison between the never-before-exhibited Self-Portrait on loan from a private Boston-area collection, and The Five Senses set demonstrates Wautier’s effective adaptation of brushwork to match the subject matter. In Self-Portrait, Wautier’s handling of the paint is a virtuoso statement of self-conscious control. Fully confident in her artistic ability and staring straight at the viewer, Wautier presents herself before an easel. This subgenre of self-portraiture, invented in the sixteenth century by the Antwerp artist Catharina van Hemessen, seems to have been especially important for female artists to promote their professionalism and express their artistic ambitions.
The exhibition is accompanied by an open access digital catalog, edited by Atkins and Muller, with contributions from the six organizing students. This is the first publication on Wautier’s The Five Senses, which was virtually unknown until MFA’s show, and includes high-resolution images, in-depth entries, and several short contextualizing essays. Contrary to the accessible wall labels written for a wide public, the catalog texts are intended for a scholarly audience. Noto examines Wautier’s technique, especially through close looking at Sight and Smell. Hirsch and Higgerson both address the patronage and audience of the painted series and argue that it was likely commissioned by an erudite patron. Xu demonstrates how the series could have functioned as a conversation starter for a scientific-minded audience by connecting Wautier’s work to the contemporaneous philosophical debate between the Aristotelian and Cartesian theories of knowledge production which provoked controversy at the University of Leuven in the Southern Netherlands in the mid-seventeenth century. Muller and Etoundi discuss the importance of the 1650 date on Wautier’s rediscovered The Five Senses in reconstructing her oeuvre and, perhaps most importantly, in determining that her innovative approach to the subject influenced Michael Sweerts who returned to Brussels only in 1655—instead of the other way around. This significant new information prompts future scholars to reexamine Wautier’s relationship with Sweerts, and will hopefully incite new research into the painter’s artistic connections. The final essay, written by Muller and Sardari, concentrates on Wautier’s portrait paintings and examines, among other examples, the 1643 engraving by Paulus Pontius after the artist’s earliest known work, her Portrait of Andrea Cantelmo. This engraving is also on view in the show.
Despite the fact that the introductory wall label uses the term “canon,” a marginalizing concept that implies hierarchical thinking and value systems to express the exhibition’s aim of returning the artist to art history, the feminist curatorial strategy of Michaelina Wautier and ‘The Five Senses’: Innovation in 17th-Century Flemish Painting is successful. The innovative pedagogical collaboration between experienced curators and young scholars resulted in an original, focused exhibition that moves beyond the trope of the “rediscovered” or “forgotten” female artist, even though the six paintings on display were only recently discovered and never before exhibited. Instead, Wautier is valued as an artist in her own right, irrespective of her gender. The exhibition and catalog open pathways for a more inclusive scholarship, not only by allowing emerging academics to join the conversation, but also by advocating for women artists by examining their achievements as artists, not just as women.
Caroline Van Cauwenberge
Curatorial Associate, The Leiden Collection, New York