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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Michaelina Wautier, The Five Senses

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 at the MFA, Boston). Speakers: Dr. Christopher Atkins, Van Otterloo-Weatherie Director, Center for Netherlandish Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) - [Beth] 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. And the one we wanna focus on shows the sense of smell. - [Christopher] 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. And that odor, that gas that's coming up, that's a pretty sophisticated and philosophical approach to the subject. - [Beth] So 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. - [Christopher] This is the period where people are beginning to look at the world around them in a different way. So 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? - [Beth] 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. - [Christopher] Of active philosophical interest, if not active debates. - [Beth] 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 and we feel as though we're sitting in front of this boy. - [Christopher] This feels like a real person in front of us looking out directly at us. - [Beth] And it's so real that we almost wanna put our hands up to our noses ourselves because we might smell that egg, too. 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? - [Christopher] Katlijne Van der Stighelen, a professor at the University of Leuven is really responsible for putting Wautier into the spotlight. And what we are looking at here is five of the 35 pictures that we now know to be by the artist. - [Beth] I think back to Linda Nochlin's article, "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?" And one answer has to be willful blindness. - [Christopher] 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 sort of willful process over the course of history to not put her into the historical documents. - [Beth] Let's go look at a signature. So 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. - [Christopher] 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. - [Beth] So 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. - [Christopher] It makes us ask the question, what else is there? - [Beth] 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. (jazzy music)