Though scarcely known today, Michaelina Woutiers was one of the most important and talented female painters working in the Southern Netherlands during the 17th century. While other women in Northern Europe did establish careers in the arts during the period, Woutiers is almost unique in having worked successfully across genres, painting portraits, still-lifes, history paintings, as well as scenes of everyday life. The artist’s surviving known oeuvre is very small, and this newly rediscovered work constitutes an invaluable and exciting addition to it.
The only contemporary reference to Woutiers is found in the inventory of the collection of Archduke Leopold-Wilhelm, Governor of the Netherlands (1614-1662), drawn up in Vienna in 1659. Here ‘Jungfraw Magdalena Woutiers von Mons’ is recorded as the author of four paintings, two showing Saint Joachim, one of Saint Joseph, and a monumental ‘Bacchus Procession’ (all Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna), in which the artist’s own personage appears, nude, in the retinue. The fact that her name is transcribed in this inventory as ‘Magdalena’, rather than her signed ‘Michaelina’, may have simply been due to its unfamiliarity at the time (see K. van der Stighelen, ‘‘A robustness that is quite extraordinary in a woman’: paintings by Michaeline Woutiers’ in An Unexpected Journey: Vrouw en Kunst - Women and Art, Antwerp, 1996, p. 292). The presence of these pictures in such a prestigious collection is indicative of the distinguished position Woutiers appears to have held in the Southern Netherlands at this time. The Archduke obtained many of his pictures in Brussels and Antwerp, and it may have been in the former that Woutiers lived and worked.
The paucity of documentary evidence on the painter makes a reconstruction of her life and career somewhat difficult. From the Vienna inventory, and its reference to her as ‘Jungfraw’, it can be ascertained that she was unmarried by 1659, and probably remained so. Given the reference to Mons in the 1659 inventory, it is usually assumed that Woutiers was born in that town, probably the younger sister of the painter Karel (Charles) Woutiers who was christened there in 1610 or 1611. Karel studied in the workshop of Rubens, and the similarities in their known works suggest that he may in fact have been his sister’s teacher. Michaelina’s earliest known work is a now-lost portrait of Andreas Cantelmus, painted before 1643 when it was engraved by Paulus Pontius with the inscription ‘Michaelina Woutiers pinxit’. She appears to have continued working in this genre, signing another portrait, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, that is dated 1646. A painting of A Young boy playing a recorder (Hearing?), signed and dated 1650, was recorded as part of a group of five in Valenciennes in 1883 and was sold at Hôtel Drouot in 1975. Through her career Woutiers continued to develop her style and vary her output. She painted two floral garlands in 1652 (private collection and location unknown) and, towards the end of the 1650s, her work became more ambitious with the Triumph of Bacchus (a work of extraordinary subject and dimension for a female artist in 17th-century Flanders), the large Education of the Virgin of 1656 (formerly with Kunsthandel Hoogsteder en Hoogsteder, The Hague) and the monumental Annunciation of 1659, her last dated work (Louveciennes, Musée Promenade de Marly-Le-Roi). The diversity of genres Woutiers explored was surpassed only by the diversity of her influences: she clearly studied the art of Rubens and Van Dyck in Flanders and later in her career, especially with her large religious works, turned also French idioms, embracing the language of painters like Vouet, Tournier and even Poussin.
This graceful, bust-length study of a woman is datable to c. 1650 and shows Woutiers’ evident engagement with Van Dyck and Rubens at this time. The pose and composition of the young lady with upturned gaze and flowing hair suggest she may have been intended to serve as a model for a depiction of Mary Magdelene. Paintings of this type had become standard practice in the Netherlands, following Rubens’ consistent use of life-sized studies after his return from Italy and the establishment of his workshop in Antwerp during the early 1610s. Other surviving works by Woutiers (fig. 1) reveal that she continued producing such studies throughout the 1650s. That Woutiers too engaged in making these freely painted images is a fascinating insight into her practice as well as her knowledge of the workings of larger workshops and the methods of leading painters in the Southern Netherlands.
We are grateful to Professor Katlijne Van der Stighelen for confirming the attribution on the basis on first-hand inspection and for her assistance cataloguing this lot. Dr. Van der Stighelen has requested the present work for inclusion in an exhibition devoted to Woutiers that will be held at the Rubenhuis, Antwerp, in 2018.