Watch-and-sniff video walk-through of Dutch art exhibition comes with the pungent aromas of 17th century living

  • Fleeting – Scents in Colour uses aromas to enhance the viewing of 17th century Dutch masters – such as those from a church, a closet, and a stinking canal
  • With the coronavirus pandemic having shut the exhibition, a video of the show with four scents to open as you watch it is available to viewers at home

The Hague’s Mauritshuis is a 17th-century palace full of world-famous paintings from the same period. The permanent collection includes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, both stars of bestselling novels and films. 

The Covid-caused closure of the museum would have been disappointing at any time, but was particularly frustrating for curator Ariane van Suchtelen, who had spent years painstakingly preparing an extraordinary exhibition about aromas in art.

Fleeting – Scents in Colour is about the attempts of Dutch and Flemish painters to give an impression of smell in their paintings, about the odours of the people and places they portrayed, and about the powerful effect smells can have upon emotions and memory. 

She had sought the assistance of historians, chemists and scent technologists to recreate complex and now long-forgotten odours ready to be puffed from foot-pedal-powered dispensers placed next to selected works, the smells of church, closet and canal adding an extra dimension to images already full of depth and detail.

Fleeting – Scents in Colour is a multisensory exhibition of paintings by 17th century Dutch masters mixed with the smells of the scenes they depict. Four of the aromas are available for home viewers to sniff while watching an accompanying video. Photo: Peter Neville-Hadley

So with the doors still closed and the clock ticking down to the point at which additional works loaned for the show would need to be returned, it was decided to create an opportunity not only to view the exhibition from any corner of the globe, but also to be able to smell it from there, too – a world first.

A presentation box of four assorted aromas, each specific to a particular canvas, can be sprayed at home while watching a conversational video walk-through of the exhibition with culinary journalist Joël Broekaert and Van Suchtelen herself.

The Hague’s Mauritshuis art museum (centre left). Photo: Shutterstock
The Hague’s Mauritshuis art museum (centre left). Photo: Shutterstock

Every Dutch city had its waterways, which doubled as repositories for human waste, offal, rotten vegetables, the run-off from tanning and dyeing workshops, and more. As can be seen from Pieter de Hooch’s Interior with Women in Front of a Linen Cupboard, notoriously house-proud Dutch and Flemish housewives kept interiors of odourless order and perfumed perfection, while directly outside their windows was little more than an open sewer.

“You can see the canal through the open door in the background but the house has this very strong sense of cleanliness,” says Van Suchtelen, via video chat from The Hague. “And there we have a smell for the visitors which is a based on a historical recipe for a ‘sweet bag’ – an aromatic bag to be put in the linen cupboard.”

Surely the canal stench must have been all-pervasive and all the time, far from the “fleeting” of the exhibition’s title? But the point is that many smells once taken for granted have long disappeared. For instance, the sharp odour of early bleaching methods (also included in the box) no longer drifts in from fields where cloth has been stretched out for treatment, as shown in Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields

View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields by Jacob van Ruisdael. When he painted it, such fields would have given off a sharp odour.
View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields by Jacob van Ruisdael. When he painted it, such fields would have given off a sharp odour.

Horses and the products of their ends no longer fill the streets, and the canals no longer overflow with effluent, so the first impression now gained from looking at Jan van der Heyden’s 1670 view across a canal to a broad promenade in front of the Old Church in Amsterdam is one of orderly prosperity.

“But somebody in the 17th century would have looked at a painting like that quite differently,” says Van Suchtelen, “because that person would have had an association with the stench which we don’t have any more.”

She found that opening her nose to various paintings opened her eyes to them a little more, too, even to very familiar images such as Van der Heyden’s canal. 

The presentation box of odours for home viewers shows a detail from Abraham Mignon’s Still Life of Flowers and Fruit. The scents inside are less common. Photo: Peter Neville-Hadley
The presentation box of odours for home viewers shows a detail from Abraham Mignon’s Still Life of Flowers and Fruit. The scents inside are less common. Photo: Peter Neville-Hadley

“I’d never looked at it with an eye for smell and the sense of smell, and when I looked more closely with that in mind I saw that there was a structure next to the bridge over the canal which is actually a public toilet. We can see it is directly over the canal, and next to it is a man sweeping up horse manure, and there’s a woman nearby who is doing her laundry in the stinking water,” Van Suchtelen says.

“17th Century Canal” is one of the eight odours in the exhibition, and one of the four that arrive in little plastic vials in a beautiful presentation box, its lid displaying a detail from Abraham Mignon’s Still Life of Flowers and Fruit.

In the painting the flowers are in full bloom and the fruit swollen and overripe in what is altogether the equivalent of a silent scream in smell terms. But the dry sprays at the exhibition and in the box alike mostly avoid such still common scents in favour of the forgotten.

Despite the apparent indifference of three people seen boating placidly in the foreground, Van der Heyden’s Amsterdam was apparently an olfactory cacophony, and in the video, Broekaert visibly shies from the smell puffed when he operates the foot pump. 

Michaelina Wautier’s A Boy Smelling Tobacco.
Michaelina Wautier’s A Boy Smelling Tobacco.

Nevertheless, you should do this at home. Pause the video at the point indicated while the painting fills the screen and, with a quick twist of the cap, pop up the pump and give it a couple of quick presses beneath the nose, perhaps adopting the pose of Michaelina Wautier’s A Boy Smelling Tobacco, seen in the show. The impact is more subtly pungent than expected, but it certainly adds an extra dimension to the view.

Was Van Suchtelen not tempted to include the Mauritshuis’ most famous painting: Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring? That young women in a fancy-dress turban, the improbably large pearl at her ear so subtly suggested by two quick daubs of white, her soft eyes full of mute appeal and her lips moist and slightly parted as if yearning for a kiss – did she smell as wonderful as she looks? 

“Never thought of it,” says Van Suchtelen, matter-of-factly. “There’s absolutely nothing that refers to smell in that painting.”

The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer offered no scope for an aroma.
The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer offered no scope for an aroma.

We know now that the l’air du temps was in fact Canal No 5, but at a time when bad smells were thought to communicate disease, perfume-laden pomanders – highly ornate portable containers for mixtures of aromatics – were carried or worn to ward off infection.

Some pomanders feature as exhibits in the show, including an ornate segmented orb of silver and silver-gilt from around 1620, each segment labelled for a different ingredient. An observer in Michiel and Peter van Mierevelt’s The Anatomy Lessoncan also be seen holding one, as the smell of corpses was thought to be particularly dangerous.

Another pomander displayed is in the shape of a skull, cheerfully inscribed with the motto “Alive today, dead tomorrow”.

The Anatomy Lesson by Michiel and Peter van Mierevelt. An observer can be seen holding a pomander – a portable container for mixtures of aromatics to ward off infection.
The Anatomy Lesson by Michiel and Peter van Mierevelt. An observer can be seen holding a pomander – a portable container for mixtures of aromatics to ward off infection.

Researchers supplied centuries-old recipes to International Flavours and Fragrances – a provider of scents and tastes to food, beverage, perfume and household goods manufacturers – for it to recreate. Included in the box is the aroma of a winter pomander – a complex assembly of assorted resins, musk, civet, ambergris, cloves, lavender, iris and much more, altogether of a subtly appealing mild astringency that must have been comforting even if of no real use.

The recipe for the linen cupboard “sweet bag”, like that of the pomander, was easy enough to find and reproduce, and the smell of A Grocer’s Shop by Willem van Mieris, full of the scent of imported spices now familiar to us but novel at the time, was easily constructed from the labels clearly visible on spice boxes in the picture.

The canal smell was more tricky, although contemporary accounts of their noisome nature and attempts to dispel it provided the necessary details.

“We wanted a nasty smelly smell – rotten, and really horrible. And that took quite a while because the perfumers are more used to making pleasant smells,” says Van Suchtelen.

The lavishly illustrated catalogue highlights scent-related details in the paintings – a fragrant sauce in preparation, a man holding his nose, the canal-side privy – and even comes with scratch-and-sniff bookmark. The project may seem to have a whiff of whimsy, but it’s a playful, refreshing and informative approach to art.

Having the smells to hand at home provides a surprising sense of direct contact with the paintings and the lives of the people they depict that no video alone could provide. It’s the next best thing to being there, and until that’s possible, an opportunity not to be sniffed at.

Once museums in The Hague are allowed to reopen, Fleeting – Scents in Colour will run until August 29, but the scent box and online video will continue to be available after that. For details, and to acquire the box of scents (€20/US$24 less tax, plus shipping), see mauritshuis.nl. The scent vials are good for dozens of uses.

By : Peter Neville-Hadley – SCMP

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