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Don't miss this Baroque Flemish mistress

There is so much going on in Antwerp and Flanders at the moment, it should be top of everyone’s list to visit. And there is a very special exhibition that is currently on at the MAS as part of the Flemish Masters 2018-2020 initiative: the Baroque artist Michaelina Wautier

The Michelina exhibition at MAS Antwerp. photo: Sigrid Spinnox

The reason this exhibition is so special is because it focuses on a very rare Baroque painter: Michaelina Wautier (1604-1689). In the past, you could be forgiven for thinking that there were no female painters from the Renaissance period onwards, but slowly they are being revealed to us: Artemisia Gentilisci, Plautilla Nelli (who had her first exhibition at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence last year) and now Michaelina Wautier.

In this world premiere exhibition, the first retrospective of her work, it showcases a talented artist, who would have struggled to succeed as a rare female artist during the Baroque period, let alone be remembered over 300 years later. Which is why this exhibition must not be missed. For Wautier is a most talented, multifaceted painter who could paint historical pieces, portraits and genre scenes – which also makes her a very unique painter.

Little is actually known about the background of Michaelina Wautier – her life is not documented. She was one of nine children, the only girl, who lived in Mons and then moved to Brussels with one of her brothers, also a painter, called Charles (1609-1703) in 1640. Both remained unmarried and lived in a grand mansion near Kapellekerk.

It is currently known that she painted 30 works, and the exhibition features 22 of them. Her earliest painting known to date, and in the exhibition, is the Portrait of a Commander in the Spanish Arrmy (1646). There are questions as to whether this is actually her earliest painting – as the style is very assured – and the attention to detail, such as the silver trim on the pink scarf – is already mastered beautifully.

Self Portrait, Michaelina Waiter (c) particuliere verzameling

A favourite painting in the exhibition for me is the portrait of Michaelina herself – originally thought to have been of Artemisa Gentileschi (1593-1654) or Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678). She stares out at the viewer directly, brushes and paints to hand, and the only accessary besides these is her watch on a bright pink ribbon. Is the watch making an illusion to the transience of her own beauty and youth or is she remarking that although time is passing by, her art will remain?

Portrait of the Jesuit Martino Martini, Michaelina Wautier (c) The Klesch Collection

Another favourite portrait is of the Jesuit Martino Martini. This large man is almost alive in the canvas, such is the talent of the painter. The man is identified from a Chinese and Latin inscription in the top right corner which when transcribed, provides the name ‘Wei Kuangguo’ – the alias of the Italian Jesuit missionary and cartograther Martino Marini (1612-1661). This is an important painting as it thought to have been commissioned by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm himself: in the inventory of his collection, drawn up in Vienna in 1659, there are listed four paintings by Michaelina. The Archduke was a supporter of Marini’s missionary work in China and both were commited to propagating the ideals of the Counter-Reformation as widely as possible.

Two girls as Saints Agnes and Dorothy, Michaelina Waiter Image: (c) F Richards

A highlight of the exhibition is the double portrait of two young girls who are pictured in the guise of Saint Agnes and Saint Dorothy. Apparently associating young women with saints in this manner was a time-honoured way of linking concepts of religiosity and virtue. Although there have been overpaintings of this work (proven by recent x-rays), thought to have been at a later time, the faces and depiction of the girls’ clothing show how talented an artist Wautier was.

The final painting in the exhibition is the Bacchanal (Triumph of Bacchus), a monumental canvas which was included in the 1659 inventory of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm’s collection and is thought to be Wautier’s largest painting. It is said that the female figure on the right is Michaelina herself – once again she is looking out at her audience. This painting also caused a stir with so many nearly nude men depicted. However with eight younger brothers, this familiarity probably wasn't as shocking as it seems.

The Triumph of Bacchus, Michaelina Waiter, image:(c) F. Richards

The exhibition is the result of years of intensive research by Dr Katkjne Van der Stighelen (for an interview, CLICK HERE) and is a collaboration between the Rubens House and MAS in Antwerp. It can be enjoyed on a number of different levels: the paintings themselves, the fact that it is a rare exhibition of a female Baroque painter or that is part of the wider celebration of Flemish Masters. However you approach it – just don’t miss the opportunity to see it.


MAS (Museum aan de Stroom)


Showing until: 2 September 2018

Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am - 5pm

For more information CLICK HERE


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