Spotlight on Michaelina Wautier

From a footnote in art history to the front page of the New York Times

Fig. 1. Michaelina Wautier, Portrait of the Martino Martini, a Jesuit Missionary in China, 1654, oil on canvas, 69.5 x 59 cm

Fig. 2. Michaelina Wautier, Young Man Smoking a Pipe, 1565, oil on canvas, 68.6 x 58.6 cm

This first edition of Spotlight features the Flemish Baroque painter Michaelina Wautier (1614–1689), who is proudly represented in the collection with her Portrait of Martino Martini (1614–1661), a Jesuit missionary in China (fig. 1) and Young Man Smoking a Pipe (fig. 2).

In early December, the New York Times featured on its front page the article: ‘For Centuries, Her Art Was Forgotten, or Credited to Men. No More.’ The article highlights Wautier’s accomplishments on the occasion of the first dedicated exhibition of her work in the United States, currently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The exhibition follows in the footsteps of the ground-breaking, inaugural 2018 exhibition held at the MAS in Antwerp, curated by Dr. Katlijne Van der Stighelen.

The Klesch Collection’s portrait of the Jesuit Martino Martini is one of the few fully signed and dated portraits by Wautier currently known. A cartographer as well as a priest, Martini was one of the first Westerners to study the geography and history of China. Confirming his favourable status in China, Wautier has shown Martini dressed in Manchu fashion and, in the upper right corner of the canvas, Martini’s name is written in both Chinese and the corresponding Latin transcription, ‘Wei Kuangguo’. The graceful calligraphy implies that it was painted by either Martini himself or his Chinese assistant. In the upper left, the painting is signed ‘Michaelina Wautier fecit 1654‘. In the Klesch Collection’s painting, Young Man Smoking a Pipe, Wautier has elevated her subject to become an allegory of the Sense of Smell, alluding to reflections about the transience of life, in which the young man seems to be quietly enveloped. The Five Senses was a popular theme at the time, as evidenced by the group of allegories of the Five Senses by Wautier exhibited in Boston.

The Klesch Collection is proud to be the current custodian of two Wautier paintings, which adds to the narrative that celebrates her greatness. Future scholarship, not only on Wautier but on the discovery of other women artists from the Renaissance period, will highlight women artists’ important contributions at that time. As all of our women artists represented in the Klesch Collection will be on display in a variety of exhibitions over the next 18 months, future editions of Spotlight will further explore these great female artists of the past whose narratives and greatness were overshadowed at a time when male artists and the patriarchal culture dominated the social construct at that time.