Lot 14. Michaelina Wautier (Mons 1604- c . 1689 Brussels) A young man smoking a pipe, signed and dated 'mich...lina W... f...t' (upper left, strengthened), oil on canvas, 27 x 23 1/3 in. (68.6 x 58.6 cm.). Estimate: US$300,000 - US$500,000. Price realised USD 759,000. © Christie's Images Ltd 2019.
Provenance: Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 21 April 1993, lot 168, as 'School of Haarlem, 17th Century'.
Private collection, Switzerland, where acquired by the present owner on 20 September 2013.
Exhibited: Sint-Niklaas, Tentoonstellingszaal Zwijgershoek, Over het genot van de zintuigen in de schilderkunst, 30 September 2012-31 January 2013, as dated 1656.
Antwerp, Museum aan de Stroom, Michaelina Wautier 1604-1689: Glorifying a Forgotten Talent, 1 June-2 September 2018, no. 20, as signed and dated 'Michaelina Wautiers fecit 166'.
Note: Formerly attributed to Judith Leyster, A young man smoking a pipe testifies instead to the consummate skill of another exceptional female painter of the seventeenth century—Michaelina Wautier—an artist whose oeuvre has only recently begun to receive the attention it so rightly deserves. Though Wautier turned her brush to all genres, including history painting and still life, it is in her portraits and genre scenes that the artist's lively freshness and observational accuracy find their fullest expression. Her charming depictions of children, in particular, invite comparisons with some of the most outstanding seventeenth-century painters, including Michael Sweerts and Jacob van Oost, to whom Wautier’s works have frequently been misattributed. Indeed, the infrequent references to Michaelina in subsequent centuries note her particular talent as a portrait painter. The nineteenth-century German art historian Georg Kasper Nagler, for example, wrote that she ‘made herself known…through portraits’ (Neues Allgemeines Künstler-Lexikon, XXII, Munich, 1852, p. 101). As far as can be discerned from the historical record, the production of portraits formed an integral part of Wautier’s activity as an artist from the beginning of her career. Her earliest identifiable work is the Portrait of Andrea Cantelmo known today exclusively through a 1643 engraving by Paulus Pontius. Likewise, her first extant signed and dated painting is the Portrait of a Commander in the Spanish Army from 1646 (Les Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels).
The present painting showcases Wautier’s remarkable talent for capturing the personality of her sitters. Though not a portrait, this smoking young boy portrayed in three-quarter profile was no doubt painted from a live model. The thin wisp of smoke emanating from the boy’s slightly open lips, the fleeting ember of his pipe and his transfixed, somewhat melancholic expression all suggest that the painting might have been intended as an allegory of the transience and vanity of human existence. Alternatively, the painting may once have formed part of an allegorical series of the Five Senses. Indeed, a pair of sales held in Valenciennes in 1883 and 1898 indicate that Michaelina depicted precisely such a series on canvases of identical dimensions. That this painting cannot have been part of this cycle is confirmed by the fact that none of the paintings described in the sale catalogues depicted a boy holding a pipe. A further image depicting a boy inhaling tobacco may formerly have belonged to yet another series of the senses (see exhibition catalogue, Antwerp 2018, pp. 250-253, no. 21).
Of particular note is the attention Wautier lavished on the rendering of fabrics. The skilfully executed doublet; the wide silk sleeves, slashed to reveal flashes of red lining; and the gilt buttons gleaming at the boy’s wrists are all typical of fashions worn by the wealthy urban elite in the middle of the seventeenth century. However, the cylindrical form of his wool or fur hat adorned with a feather is more evocative of styles that prevailed in Bohemia at the end of the sixteenth century. The hat’s exotic quality was evidently popular among a broad spectrum of artists from Michaelina’s generation. A similar hat appears in Adriaen Brouwer’s Youth making a face from the early 1630s, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (fig. 1), and Michaelina’s elder brother, Charles, likewise employed it in his own depiction of a boy smoking a pipe a few years later (private collection, Hamburg).
The versatile handling of paint in Young man smoking a pipe speaks to a wide range of influences on Wautier’s practice. Nothing specific is known about her training. Newly discovered archival documents show that she was born and baptised in Mons in 1604; as an unmarried woman, it is likely that she remained there to care for her parents, at least until her mother’s death in 1638. There is evidence of her being active as a painter in Brussels from circa 1640 onwards, an opportunity that was open to her thanks to her brother, who was then living and working in the town. However, given the lack of contemporary documentary sources, Wautier’s works provide the only clues regarding her artistic training. While she may well have obtained some degree of tutoring training from her brother, it is clear that she equally drew eclectically from sources as disparate as sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian paintings and Sweerts, who had set up a drawing academy in Brussels in 1656 following his return from Rome. By this time, Michaelina must have already established herself as one of Brussels' leading painters: the 1659 inventory of the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, who, as Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, was resident in Brussels between 1647 and 1656, includes four paintings by the artist (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), the only works by a female painter included in this illustrious collection.