Michaelina Wautier, The Five Senses

This willfully forgotten Dutch artist explores how we experience the world around us during the time of the Scientific Revolution.

Michaelina Wautier, The Five Senses, series of five canvases (Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch), 1650, oil on canvas, 68 x 58 cm or 70 x 61 cm (Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection, on exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the lovely rotunda at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and we’re looking at a series of five paintings of the five senses by Michaelina Wautier. The one we want to focus on shows the sense of smell.

Dr. Christopher Atkins: [0:19] We have a young boy holding his nose, because in his other hand he’s holding a rotten egg, which we can imagine must be an absolutely horrific odor. That odor, that gas that’s coming up, that’s a pretty sophisticated and philosophical approach to the subject.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] We know the subject of the five senses was popular at this time in the 17th century, and artists like Rubens and Brueghel painted the same subject.

Dr. Atkins: [0:44] This is the period where people are beginning to look at the world around them in a different way. How do we understand? How do we interact with the world? How do our senses help us explain and engage with all the different things around us?

Dr. Harris: [0:57] This is the period of the Scientific Revolution. Philosophers, scientists are thinking about how we gain knowledge about the world around us. Is it through our senses? Is it through our minds? Is it through a combination of both? Which comes first? These were matters of philosophical interest.

Dr. Atkins: [1:15] Of active philosophical interest, if not active debates.

Dr. Harris: [1:19] Let’s talk about Wautier. She’s such an interesting artist. Her facility with paint is so clear in this painting. The folds of the boy’s jacket are painted with such skill. We can see the brushstrokes, the tiny touches of lighter-colored yellow and gold paint on his knuckles or on his cheeks. His eyes are so penetrating. We feel as though we’re sitting in front of this boy.

Dr. Atkins: [1:45] This feels like a real person in front of us, looking out directly at us.

Dr. Harris: [1:49] It’s so real that we almost want to put our hands up to our noses ourselves because we might smell that egg too. The figure is very close to us. We feel very much like he’s in our space. The background is dark so that our attention goes to that figure, who fills out the space of the painting. So, how is it that I’ve never heard of Wautier before?

Dr. Atkins: [2:09] Katlijne Van der Stighelen, a professor at the University of Leuven, is really responsible for putting Wautier into the spotlight. What we are looking at here is 5 of the 35 pictures that we now know to be by the artist.

Dr. Harris: [2:22] I think back to Linda Nochlin’s article, “Why [Have] There [Been] No Great Women Artists?” and one answer has to be willful blindness.

Dr. Atkins: [2:30] Each of the five senses is signed and dated, so these are clearly and prominently ascribed to her. So it does in fact seem like there must have been some willful process over the course of history to not put her into the historical documents.

Dr. Harris: [2:44] Let’s go look at a signature. We’re looking now at the painting having to do with the sense of hearing, and we can clearly see a signature in the upper left.

Dr. Atkins: [2:54] It says “Michaelina Wautier fecit,” then dated 1650. It’s really hard to miss. Now that we know of this series and with her attribution and with the dating, we can now put it into sequence and look at other works of art and think about which ones came first and which ones followed.

Dr. Harris: [3:10] I wonder how many other women artists are lurking in private collections and in the basements of museums and how we can overcome that kind of blindness as scholars.

Dr. Atkins: [3:22] It makes us ask the question, what else is there?

Dr. Harris: [3:25] It makes me think about how invested we are in the idea of the male artist and the male genius that we can’t even see what’s in front of our eyes.

[3:34] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”fivesenses,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Christopher D.M. Atkins and Dr. Beth Harris, "Michaelina Wautier, The Five Senses," in Smarthistory, December 8, 2022, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/michaelina-wautier-the-five-senses/.