Michaelina Wautier (1604-1689) until recently has been omitted from art history. The Journal Of Art In Society has been spotlighting forgotten women artists in a series of articles. Art historian and writer, Philip McCouat, in the fourth article in this series of articles, “Michaelina Wautier: Entering The Limelight After 300 Years,” noted how in 1993, a young art historian, Katlijne Van der Stighelen accidentally discovered in storage at a museum in Vienna the painting “Bacchanal” (1659) by Wautier. Van der Stighelen recognized her “outstanding talent” which needed to be explored.
Twenty-five years later, in 2018, the first major retrospective of Michaelina Wautier’s works was held in Antwerp, Belgium. Since then, McCouat writes “the hunt for her lost works is on.”
In 2020, a complete cycle of Wautier’s paintings representing the five senses, previously considered lost and “one of the great mysteries” in the study of Netherlandish art, “resurfaced” according to a press release issued by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). Now, after 370 years, the museum is featuring these five paintings by Michaelina Wautier in a must-see installation in its Upper Hemicycle gallery.
The detailed portrayals of Sight, Smell, Hearing, Taste and Touch, each center on boys performing everyday activities rather than “depicting the senses as experienced by idealized women.” The museum notes that “Wautier’s innovative conception, complex choreography of glances and gestures, and ability to convey different textures” justifies the showcasing of these rediscovered works as it reopens the MFA’s newly renovated Dutch and Flemish galleries.
These five rediscovered paintings from the 17th century are to be treasured. They represent five of the only 40 or so known works by Wautier. But what stopped this museum-goer in his tracks was Wautier’s depiction of Taste and of Smell. No surprise, since one of most riveting museum-going experiences for me was the exhibit, Art and Appetite, American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine curated by the Art Institute of Chicago, with paintings on loan from more than 25 collections throughout the United States. In both Taste and Smell, Wautier centers her depiction of these two senses with two common foods in 17th Century Europe.
Wautier’s decision to illustrate the sense of taste with a focus on a slice of buttered bread was at first glance somewhat surprising. The label for “Taste, from The Five Senses, 1650″ is succinct: “In what would have made an effective advertisement for buttered bread, Wautier depicts taste through a youth taking a bite. Lips planted on his food the boy locks eyes with us.”
But why not depict a ripe piece of fruit or a sweet or a pungent cheese in her well-painted oil on canvas? Then, it began to make good sense. In the 17th century, bread was indeed “the staff of life.”
On the website Professor Bread, information at a tab for The Staff of Life notes that in the late 17th century, “Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and Bible commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714) both used the expression “the staff of life” in relation to bread.” Why? According to Professor Bread, it’s simple: “bread is called the ‘staff of life’ because it is a very basic food that supports life.”
The senior thesis of Marie Pellissier, a Boston College history major, available on-line, includes a fascinating essay “Food in the Seventeenth Century.” Pellissier writes that “Everyone, from the King and Queen to the poorest beggar, ate bread.” She also notes that the most expensive was “the whitest bread, called manchet” which was made from finely ground wheat flour. But rye, barley and oats were also used to make bread in the 17th century and Pellissier adds “were far more common in bread than they are today, and indeed, variety in texture was expected.”
A search on-line also reveals a recipe for Seventeenth Century French Bread. The photo of the bread baked from this recipe is mouth-watering looking, and certain to be tasty! It’s not clear from the recipe whether the “mixture of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, dried onion dried garlic” on top of the bread would have been actually used in the 17th Century. Nonetheless, a recipe for a “seed cake” on the website, British Food: A History, notes that “caraway seeds were used to flavour all sorts of foods ever since ancient times, because unlike the other spices it grew happily throughout Europe.”
A close look at the slice of buttered bread painted by Michaelina Wautier does not reveal any apparent seeds. Yet the longer one looks, the tastier that slice of bread becomes, seeds or not.
If you’re within visiting distance of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Michaelina Wautier’s paintings of the Five Senses are not to be missed. And I would add, a visit to one of the three craft bakeries in the Boston area included in our directory of craft bakeries would be a perfect place to stop for a loaf or two of real bread with lots of taste after the exhibit.
(Frank W. Barrie, 1/20/22)