The Bacchanalian procession by the seventeenth-century artist Michaelina Wautier has arrived in the MAS. “The Triumph of Bacchus” is a unique painting, both because of its dimensions and its subject matter. The work is just under 9 square metres large and depicts intoxication, lust and seduction. It is all the more exceptional if you bear in mind that it was painted around 1655 by a woman. Female artists were rare in the seventeenth century. And women who chose sex and intoxication as the subject matter of their art all the more so.
The MAS has now entered the home straight for the “Michaelina” exhibition with the arrival of “The Triumph of Bacchus”. The exhibition’s curator, Katlijne Van der Stichelen, happened upon a monumental painting of 2.5 by 3.5 metres in Vienna about thirty years ago. It was a huge canvas, with a procession that was predominantly made up of several nude, drunk men. Bacchus, the Roman God of wine, ecstasy and intoxication, reclines in the centre of the painting. Another figure, to his right, also stands out. The woman, who is dressed in pink robes, challenges the spectator’s gaze with her self-confident stance. We are looking at Michaelina of course, who chose to portray herself in this masterpiece.
Women artists were rare during the Baroque. Girls from rich families were usually educated in the arts, as part of their general education. Once they married and had children however, most women stopped practicing art. The majority of the few artworks by female artists that were passed down to us are small works and include portraits and flower still-lifes. That is why this Triumph of Bacchus is all the more exceptional. Many of Michaelina’s male colleagues would have thought twice about painting a work of such grand dimensions. Her choice of subject matter – the intoxicating trance, wine, seduction – is equally unusual for a distinguished seventeenth-century lady. The quality of this painting is also impressive. Michaelina effortlessly paints anatomically correct male nudes, meaning she must have studied the human body. Again, rather out of the ordinary for an unmarried seventeenth-century woman.
The “Michaelina” exhibition is the first retrospective of the work of this unique woman. You can see almost all of her known works in the MAS from June 1st.
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A new work by Michaelina Wautier (1604-1689), the leading lady of the Baroque, has surfaced.