All masterpieces

Two girls as Saint Agnes and Saint Dorothea

Michaelina Wautier
  • Object number 599
  • Date 17th century
  • Dimensions 90 × 122 cm
  • Medium Oil on canvas
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Schilderij Twee meisjes als de heiligen Agnes en Dorothea van Michaelina Wautier

Saint Agnes and Saint Dorothea

This painting is a children’s portrait packed with symbolism. Two girls pose as Saint Agnes and Saint Dorothea, both of whom were put to the sword by pagans. Agnes was 13 when she converted to Christianity in Rome and refused to marry. She was ‘betrothed’ to Jesus. The painting shows her stroking a lamb: according to her legend, she was seen with one after her death. On the right, Dorothea takes a rose from a basket. She too turned down a proposal of marriage, in her case from a Roman governor. On her way to be executed, a man shouted out that he would convert if he received roses and fruit from Dorothy’s divine bridegroom. The very next day, a boy brought him a basket of roses and fruit, even though it was the depths of winter. A miracle!

Wautier: innovative artist

The two dreamy girls are probably sisters. Their identity is unknown. Wautier painted their portraits life-sized and in vivid colours. Agnes is wearing a supple pink dress, with a cord tied around her waist. A loose mantle covers both her arms. Dorothea’s black dress has a wide, square neckline. The sleeves are pinned in place with a jewel. Her hair is swept up fashionably and she wears a pearl necklace and bracelets. The girls avert their eyes somewhat shyly, which is very innovative for the 17th century. Sitters generally looked at the viewer in that period or else made eye contact with another figure.

Wautier and the portrait historié

Portraying yourself or your children as historical or allegorical figures is called a portrait historié. The theme was usually drawn from the Bible or classical stories. Non-biblical saints like these two martyrs were also successful. They were appropriate figures for girls to identify with, as many 17th-century parents may have wished their daughters to grow up following their example.

Baroque’s Leading Lady

It was almost impossible in the 17th century for a woman to succeed as an artist. Female painters were very rare. Michaelina Wautier proved the exception. She was highly esteemed during her life. Her name even appears in the inventory of the art collection of the Habsburg Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. Deservedly so, as she was a special talent. She was in no way inferior to male contemporaries like Rubens. All the same, her work was later forgotten. We have now identified about 30 of her paintings, all of which testify to her superior technique.

Mysterious Michaelina

Two Girls as Saint Agnes and Saint Dorothea remained anonymous for many years. It was only after 2000 that it was attributed to Wautier. But who is this mysterious artist? Her life is virtually undocumented. Fortunately, we know her works, which are varied and unique. Her style is poetic, sometimes confident, sometimes more searching, always empathic. Portraits, history paintings, religious themes, mythological scenes, flowers: Michaelina Wautier mastered various contemporary genres, on both a large and a small scale.