Leiden, 1624. After a six-month apprenticeship with the painter Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, a young, 18-year-old Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn moved back to his native city of Leiden and opened his own studio in 1624 or 1625. Sometime within this period of artistic development, Rembrandt painted an elusive set of five paintings, The Five Senses (c. 1624-25), the earliest known works attributed to the Dutch painter. For the first time since the artist’s lifetime, four of the recovered panels have been reunited in a display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
The special display, entitled Sensation: Rembrandt’s First Paintings, consists of five frames, four of which are occupied by the recovered panels, on loan from the Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, and the Leiden Collection, New York. The fifth frame is left intentionally empty as a tribute to the missing panel depicting the Allegory of Taste.
The paintings follow the Low Countries’ convention of depicting the senses as genre scenes in the seventeenth century, in contrast to their prior personifications as female figures with attributes. Each scene is composed of three figures, centred around a specific interaction relating to each of the five senses. A Pedlar Selling Spectacles (Allegory of Sight) plays on the elderly man’s poor eyesight, which the pedlar uses to his advantage. Three Singers (Allegory of Hearing) focuses on the listening of music, whilst Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell) – appearing at an auction house in New Jersey in September 2015 – shows a wrinkled woman placing a cloth containing smelling salts in front of the patient’s nose. The final painting, Stone Operation (Allegory of Touch), portrays a man writhing in pain with gritting teeth and two clenched fists during his stone removal operation.
Subtle undertones of satire also feature in some of the paintings, with a moralising message resonating throughout. Sight plays on the Dutch phrase ‘brillen zonder glazen verkopen’ (to sell someone glasses without glasses [lenses]) meaning ‘you’re deceiving the other’. In the context of the painting, the pedlar may be tricking the elderly couple into buying glasses, knowing that their eyesight was already too poor to benefit from them.
Similarly, Touch uses the double-meaning of ‘van den steen snijden’ (to cut off/out the stone) to mean ‘to swindle someone of their money’. Stone removal was a hypothetical procedure usually performed by quack doctors to take advantage of superstitions surrounding the mythical ‘stone of folly’, believed to be the source of one’s madness (‘to have rocks in one’s head’) and also foolishness. It was believed that removal of this stone could cure these symptoms. Not only is the cringing man suffering from a headache, he is also too foolish to believe in this superstition.
The satire surrounding the other panels, however, are less easy to attach to known Dutch phrases. Smell certainly refers to the common procedure of using smelling salts to revive an unconscious person. However, the reason for the person’s unconscious state in the first place may have been the result of a blood-letting procedure, suggested by his pale forearm. Finally, Hearing seems to play upon the beautiful harmonious voices of youths compared to the unsteady voices of the elderly – a common theme among several Dutch proverbs, according to the Ashmolean.
Earlier this year, three of the panels – Touch, Smell, and Hearing – were exhibited together at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, in a display entitled The Promise of Youth: Rembrandt’s ‘Senses’ Rediscovered (11th May – 28th August 2016). The rediscovery of Smell provided the basis for the display, as well as prior opportunity to undertake conservation treatment.
The results found that all of the panels had each been set into another, larger panel in order to create a more elaborate composition than the existing ones which are tightly-cropped and claustrophobic. They were probably extended around 1720. Whilst the other three panels have had their additions removed several decades ago, those of Smell have been left on. Expansions were made on all sides, the greatest being to the upper part of the panel, thereby increasing the space of the scene significantly. The Getty’s blog post about the panel is a particularly revealing read.
Upon first impression, one is instantly drawn to the warm tones present in all four panels, mimicking the experience of viewing works by means of candlelight 300 years ago. This is possibly due to encounters with the art of Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerard van Honthorst, two artists particularly inspired by the work of Caravaggio. The scenes feel intimate and familiar, especially the Allegory of Hearing; one can easily relate them to the carol singers of today. Their gestures and facial expressions are subtle and precise, and the blues and whites are radiant against Rembrandt’s limited palette and preference for earthy colours. Despite their minimalist actions, the scenes are surprisingly lively; it is difficult to look at these paintings without trying to imagine oneself inside in the scenes themselves. What conversations were taking place? What sounds could be heard? Was it quiet or was it noisy? Were the smells pleasant or horrid? Was it warm or cold? Far from being just allegories of individual senses, the scenes themselves are bursting with sensory media!
And what of their backgrounds? Figures occupy that of Sight, but they lack any physical space in which to place them. The background of Hearing is entirely plain, whilst Smell and Touch bear traces of architectural features and occupational equipment, neither of which are sufficiently informative. In the background of Smell can also be discerned a sketchy attempt at a possible self-portrait with a Latin monogram ‘RHF’ (Rembrandt Harmenszoon fecit) at its top-left corner, confirming his undisputed authorship. The other panels do not bear this monogram nor any hint of a signature, causing much dispute among scholars prior to the rediscovery of Smell.
Each of these panels bear the emerging trademarks of what we consider to be a Rembrandt ‘style’: the sensitive rendering of lighting effects, the indistinct backgrounds, the effective contrast of colours against an earthy palette, the internal drama of a seemingly ordinary scene, and the use of broad brushwork complemented with a sensitive eye for detail. With his own studio created around the same time, these panels demonstrate Rembrandt’s early confidence in his own skill and ability to create works of art that delight and captivate viewers of his work.
Sensation: Rembrandt’s First Paintings is a unique and solemn opportunity to witness the beginnings of an artistic style we recognise all too well. The scenes depicted attest to a culture similar to our own: a thirst for comedy and witty phrases with an appreciation for the ordinary. If Taste emerges one day, it will likely point to a love of drinking too. But on top of this, early works by any major artist – let alone Rembrandt – are exceptionally rare and the survival of these panels is astonishing. Whilst their moral messages warn against deception, their physical alterations in the eighteenth century suggest another kind of deception: one that seeks to ‘improve’ a work in order to garner greater aesthetic pleasure and appeal in a period of changing artistic taste.
Sensation: Rembrandt’s First Paintings runs until 27th November 2016 at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, http://www.ashmolean.org.
Many thanks to Aurélie Debaene for her help with translating Dutch phrases.