Picture this 17th century painting – two women in room with shiny red tiles on the floor. In the background a child is playing kolf and even further away through the open door, we see the bright sunlit canal. The lady of the house, aided by her maid servant, is about to put a stack of white linen into a cupboard which they have just opened.
You probably have an idea what the painting of Pieter de Hooch titled Interior with women in front of a linen cupboard may look like, but I wonder if you imagined what it smelled like? And if you did, would it be the same way a 17th century viewer smelled it?
Interesting is also if the painter intended to appeal to the olfactory memory of the viewer.
All these aspects play a role in the recently opened exhibition at the Mauritshuis.
The show opens with a series of prints and paintings of the five senses. Of these we know for sure that the artist intended to appeal to more than just our sight (?). Series in print of the five senses were extremely popular from the late 16th century onwards and were initially all about the lovely scent of roses. As time progresses the depiction of scent turned into stench. We see people relieving themselves in public and baby bottoms wiped as if you are actually present.
Whereas we know for sure that the five senses series are all about the senses, of the flower still lifes we cannot always be so sure. They depict the most exclusive flowers like flamed tulips and we assume that they were painted not only for their beautiful colours but also with the idea you could smell them because they were painted so realistically.
Since most of these flowers still exist we have a clue of how they smelled. But what a 17th century viewer will have smelled looking at a view of the Amsterdam canals by Jan van der Heyden (View of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam) we can only guess. We, as 21rst century viewers, only see a beautiful canal, because we don’t associate the canals with anything else but beauty and wealth. In those days, however, the canals smelled horribly! Even travellers wondered why such a rich city still hadn’t come up with the answer to keep the canals clean. When we look closer at this painting we see why the canals were an environmental disaster: a public toilet is hanging over it, manure is wiped from the street into the canal next to where a woman is doing her laundry.
All very weird when you also know that people actually believed that smell could make you sick. This is illustrated with a group portrait of surgeons from Delft. They ‘protect’ themselves against the foul smell of the just opened corps with herbs, scented candles and a pomander. This bowl contained all kinds of animal ingredients that we still use today in the synthetic versions such as ambergris. This you could find in the intestines of a sperm whale so the stranding of such an animal in 1601 was not only a spectacular sight but also provided a quick and easy supply of ambergris.
Most of the scents I have described you can also smell on the exhibition. Dispensers with dry scents operated by a foot peddle will help you experience the art also with your nose. Once used to this approach of using all your senses, your appreciation of art will never be the same! Wendy Fossen 20th March 2021
Fleeting – Scents In Colour at Mauritshuis in The Hague continues until August 2021
Listen to Wendy talking about the exhibition to Souwie Buis on ArtsTalk Radio