Five years ago, Antwerp’s Rubens House posted the digital equivalent of a “wanted” poster for a group of missing 17th-century Flemish paintings not seen in more than 40 years. The five works had never been exhibited publicly, surfacing only rarely at auction as they passed through private collections for more than 350 years.
“A single black-and-white image of one of the paintings is the only known visual record,” wrote the museum, noting the works last appeared at auction in the mid-1970s. “There has been no further trace of the five works since then.”
Perhaps more mysterious than the missing group of paintings, however, was the artist who created them: Michaelina Wautier, who in recent years has emerged as among the most talented of the so-called female Old Masters — largely forgotten women artists whose skill is on par with their male counterparts but are only now getting their due.
“We knew nothing about her,” said Christopher Atkins, director of the Center for Netherlandish Art at the Museum of Fine Arts. “As a specialist working in the field, I didn’t know she existed.”
Now, Wautier and her once-missing series are getting a close-up at the MFA, which on Saturday will open “Michaelina Wautier and ‘The Five Senses’: Innovation in 17th-Century Flemish Painting” — the first-ever exhibition dedicated to Wautier’s work in the US.
Equally surprising: All the Wautier paintings in the small exhibition come from Boston-area collections, having been discovered in the the past few years.
“It’s really pretty amazing,” said Atkins, describing how art historians have traditionally focused on male artists from the era. “How did we miss these things as a field for so long?”
Wautier might have remained in the shadows were it not for Katlijne Van der Stighelen, an art historian who began researching Wautier after she encountered the artist’s monumental “Triumph of Bacchus” in the storage area of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Wautier, who lived from 1614 to 1689, painted the work at a time when most women artists were confined to more sanitized subject matter — children, genre scenes, still lifes. But here Wautier portrayed the boozy god surrounded by a rowdy entourage of nearly nude males, slyly inserting herself into the scene, a calm figure who gazes directly at the viewer.
“This is really astonishing, because we do not have another woman who was able to paint such a range of male bodies,” Van der Stighelen said by phone. “How did she manage to attain this kind of level?”
Despite years of research very little is known of Wautier’s life and work. Born to an affluent family in Mons, she never married, eventually moving to Brussels with her brother Charles, who was also a painter. It remains unknown where she received her training. She never joined the guild, and, to date, scholars have attributed fewer than 40 paintings to her.
Those paintings, however, display an astonishing range for any artist, including portraits, mythological scenes, history pieces, religious paintings, genre scenes, and, of course, “The Five Senses.” Her work was clearly admired in its day, said Van der Stighelen: Not only did she paint portraits of several powerful military commanders, but Archduke Leopold Wilhelm held four of her paintings in his collection.
Still, many questions remain: How did she gain access to paint such influential men? Where did she train? And though she died in 1689, her last signed painting dates from 1659 — what did she do in her final three decades?
“It’s so frustrating that this woman who was so intelligent, creative, and productive didn’t leave more traces,” said Van der Stighelen, who added that Wautier is not mentioned in any books on Flemish art from the time.
“There are references to women artists . . . but they were all in a way minor artists,” she continued. “It’s very surprising that, let’s say, the best woman artist we had in those days has never been mentioned.”
But her obscurity has also led to a swelling of interest as the market for female Old Masters is stronger than ever. A painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, perhaps the most prominent woman painter of the era, set a record price of more than $5 million in 2019. Similarly, a small work by Wautier sold last year for nearly seven times its low estimate of roughly $80,000.
“She’s just become so famous in such a short time that every dealer is looking for paintings by Michaelina,” said Van der Stighelen, who organized the first major retrospective of Wautier’s work in 2018. “Every two weeks I receive an image of a painting said to be by Michaelina in my mailbox, and 95 percent of them have nothing to do with Michaelina.”
The other 5 percent can be astonishing: Witness the six paintings that will be on display at the MFA show, which in addition to “The Five Senses” will feature a recently discovered self-portrait by Wautier.
The large painting — in which the artist, dressed in pearls at her easel, looks confidently out at the viewer — has hung for years in the home of a private Boston-area collector. The unsigned work was once attributed to Gentileschi, but the owner contacted Van der Stighelen to inquire if it was perhaps by Anna Maria van Schurman, a 17th-century polymath whom Van der Stighelen has also studied extensively.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she said. “I immediately thought it was a self-portrait of Michaelina that we can connect to the ‘Triumph of Bacchus.’”
The Netherlandish Center’s Atkins called it “mind-boggling” that the painting has been in Boston all this time, “less than a 20-minute car ride from the museum.”
“It’s bang on,” he said, describing how the portrait has numerous technical similarities to other works by Wautier. “It’s absolutely correct.”
A similar moment of revelation came for Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, Dutch art collectors who along with Susan and Matthew Weatherbie founded the CNA as part of broader transformational gift in 2017.
The van Otterloos had only recently become aware of Wautier’s work when Rose-Marie received a call from Christie’s auction house, saying the owner of “The Five Senses” wanted to sell the works in a private transaction.
“When Eijk came home, I said you have to look at this. It’s a trifecta: a female artist, a Flemish artist, and ‘The Five Senses’ are all together,” she said. “We bought it right away.”
The paintings, signed and dated 1650, present the senses through a series of young boys: One examines his hand through a pair of spectacles. Another holds his nose at the smell of a rotten egg. A third plays a recorder, as a fourth bites into a piece of bread. The final boy scratches his head in confusion after cutting his finger with a knife.
Wautier’s treatment of the subject differs markedly from earlier compositions, said Atkins, where smell might be shown by sniffing “a rose instead of a rotten egg.”
“There’s a considerable amount of humor,” he said as he observed the painting, which along with the rest of the series has been on view at the museum since it reinstalled its Dutch and Flemish galleries late last year.
The upcoming show, however, will be the second in the CNA’s innovation gallery, which seeks to present new academic research to Boston audiences. Working with art history students at Brown University, curators have paired the six Wautier paintings with treatments of the five senses by other artists including Cornelis Cort and Johannes Gillisz van Vliet.
Van Otterloo, who said the paintings “will definitely go to the MFA,” added that the couple now focuses its collecting habits with an eye toward enhancing the Boston museum’s collection.
“We really bought this sight unseen,” she said, adding the auction house sent them high-resolution images. “I just didn’t want to lose the chance of somebody else getting in there and buying them.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.