A monographic exhibition in Antwerp in 2018 introduced the work of Michaelina Wautier to the public for the first time; she had fallen into complete obscurity after her death, and only caught the attention of art historians in the late 20th century. Born in 1604 in Mons, Michaelina was the only daughter in a family of nine children, and appears to have begun her career later in life, around age 39. Her brother Charles was also a painter, and the two moved to Brussels in 1645, where they both remained unmarried and shared a studio.
Michaelina’s absence from the art historical canon is all the more surprising given that, despite the challenges she faced as a woman artist, she did not focus on a single specialty. Similar to Fede Galizia, who painted still lifes along with portraits and religious works, Wautier worked in multiple genres: portraiture, floral still life, genre painting, and history painting. The latter was the most unusual feat for a woman artist as it was considered the genre of highest importance and typically required studying live models, from which women were barred. Wautier’s religious paintings reveal her knowledge of fellow Flemish artists like Rubens and Van Dyck as well as Caravaggio and his Roman followers. Her sole mythological work, a large Triumph of Bacchus, includes a dozen—mostly male—nude figures, showing off Wautier’s inventiveness and skill in depicting the human figure even without formal study. After her death in 1689, most of her works remained with her family. This fact, combined with a dearth of documentary evidence about Michaelina, led to her paintings being incorrectly attributed to others, her artistic impact forgotten.
Wautier seems not to have created chalk or oil sketches in preparation for her compositions like other Flemish painters, but the present head study is one of several she painted on canvas of male and female sitters. Like her contemporary Jacob van Oost (1603 – 1671), Wautier had a penchant for depicting children; it is not known whether the two artists ever met, but they certainly saw one another’s work. This young boy is probably the same model as the one on the right in a genre painting currently in Seattle depicting Boys blowing bubbles (fig. 1). The hairstyle, shape of the eyebrows and nose, and coloring of the cheeks are very similar in both figures. Wautier applied a blue undertone for the thin area of skin under the boy’s eyes, which contrasts with his rosy cheeks that suggest both his youthful energy and his time spent outdoors. In both paintings, the boy gazes to the side as if lost in thought. In the Seattle painting he studies a bubble floating above him that could pop at any moment, reflecting on the frailty of life, and in the present work he seems to turn his thoughts inward.
Whether this study of a young boy served as a model for a future genre or history painting or was created as an independent work, it reveals the careful modeling, inventive use of color and chiaroscuro, and compassionate treatment of young subjects that earned Wautier success in her lifetime and the long overdue attention she has finally received.
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