Taste, touch, see, hear and smell – sensory impressions with the Both brothers

Among the most recent additions to the art collection is an extraordinary set of etchings representing the five senses. Made by the brothers Jan (c. 1618/22 – 1652) and Andries Both (1611/2 – 1642) at the height of the Dutch Golden Age, these five comic allegories illustrate the senses – taste, touch, sight, sound and smell – as scenes from the daily lives of peasants.

As curator Mark Stocker explained when choosing them, ‘What distinguishes these prints is their outstanding execution and drawing. […] their strong sense of earthy realism and sometimes coarse humour [is] belied by their technical delicacy’. Here the etchings are partnered with similar works from the collections, with their comic verse captions translated into English (my apologies for any errors that might have crept in).

Taste

1 Both 'Taste'

The five senses (taste), 1642-1650, by Jan Both after Andries Both. Etching. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (2015-0056-13). Photo: Anna Rigg.  
     Little Greta hadn’t even tasted her pancake

     When Pete’s glutton of a son made off with it.
     Big Lou grinds the flour between his molars
     And sifts it through his gullet into his gut.

2 Rembrandt 'Pancake woman'

The pancake woman, 1635, by Rembrandt van Rijn. Etching. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-415).

Some of the prints in the series have very close counterparts already in the collection. Taste, in which a woman cooks pancakes for an assembled group of eager peasants, joins a 1635 etching of The pancake woman by Rembrandt. In the Rembrandt, a small child in the foreground jealously guards his pancake from the advances of an eager dog – a struggle which escalates in Both’s Taste, where a young girl cries as her pancake is guzzled by another, greedier, child.

Though the Both brothers and Rembrandt were working in the same country, in the same period, in the same medium, and on the same subject, the two prints are stylistically very different. While retaining the sketchlike quality so prized in Dutch etchings of this period, Jan Both uses distinct, flattened outlines to emphasise the awkwardness of his peasants’ thickset bodies. Rembrandt, on the other hand, etches much more freely, giving a sense of movement and activity, and his figures, though caricatured, are sympathetically depicted.

Touch

3 Both 'Touch'

The five senses (touch), 1642-1650, by Jan Both after Andries Both. Etching. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (2015-0056-16). Photo: Anna Rigg.
     What the devil are you doing to my teeth with those pliers?
     Stop it, Mister, stop it, you’re hurting me!
     Help me, dear woman, oh trickery! I’m wringing my hands,
     I’m passing out, fetch Doctor Lubbert!

4 Van Leyden 'The dentist'

The dentist, 1523, by Lucas van Leyden. Engraving. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-305).

The scene demonstrating Touch makes use of another popular subject: people getting their teeth pulled. In the days when getting as drunk as possible was the best guard against pain, a trip to the dentist or barber-surgeon was a much-feared and often-depicted event. In Lucas van Leyden’s version, the patient has to cope not only with having dental surgery, but also with having his pocket picked by the dentist’s accomplice!

Sight

The five senses (sight), 1642-1650, by Jan Both after Andries Both. Etching. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (2015-0056-14). Photo: Anna Rigg.

The five senses (sight), 1642-1650, by Jan Both after Andries Both. Etching. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (2015-0056-14). Photo: Anna Rigg.
     John Slodder with his basket, seller of wares,
     Tries to peddle Grandma Lumpy-Furs a pair of crystal glasses.
     But Slodder’s and Mrs Slomps’ business won’t thrive,
     Because what use are glasses if people don’t want to see?

Artist painting a nude woman: allegory of visual perception, engraved c. 1598, published 1616, by Jan Saenredam after Hendrick Goltzius. Engraving. Purchased 2011. Te Papa (2011-0001-1).

Artist painting a nude woman: allegory of visual perception, engraved c. 1598, published 1616, by Jan Saenredam after Hendrick Goltzius. Engraving. Purchased 2011. Te Papa (2011-0001-1).

The late sixteenth-century Allegory of visual perception, by Jan Saenredam after Hendrick Goltzius, was aimed at connoisseurs rather than the general market (as the Boths’ prints were). As such, it speaks in symbols rather than in narrative vignettes. Its symbolic scheme depicts the application of sight to the fine arts and to various sciences of measurement and observation (geometry, astronomy, navigation), attended by an eagle and an intently gazing cat.

Both Sight and the Allegory of visual perception centre on a woman looking into a mirror – though there the similarities end. In Goltzius’s design, the woman gazes upon a reflection of ideal beauty, whereas the Boths’ ‘Grandma Lumpy-Furs’ (Besje Klonter Pels) is of unequalled plainness; as the caption insinuates, who would want glasses to look at a face this ugly? At the far right, a young man in a wide-brimmed hat looks up through a telescope. Is it possible that he’s spotted the print’s Dutch title inked into the sky?

Sound

The five senses (sound), 1642-1650, by Jan Both after Andries Both. Etching. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (2015-0056-15). Photo: Anna Rigg.

The five senses (sound), 1642-1650, by Jan Both after Andries Both. Etching. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (2015-0056-15). Photo: Anna Rigg.
     Here’s some more news of wondrous things,
     Lo! See yawning Joachim and his friend.
     Their singing brings joy to the ears
     Of the curious people gathered around.

The singers, 1667?, by Adriaen van Ostade. Etching. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-365).

The singers, 1667?, by Adriaen van Ostade. Etching. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-365).

The singing peasants in Adriaen van Ostade’s The singers, with their exaggerated facial features, are undeniably caricatures. But unlike the graceless, dough-faced rustics depicted by the Boths, Van Ostade’s singers are not without charm in their picturesque, softly lit window setting. Unlike ‘yawning Joachim and his friend’, they do not have to squint to read their music – and I get the feeling that they are singing rather more sweetly.

Smell

The five senses (smell), 1642-1650, by Jan Both after Andries Both. Etching. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (2015-0056-12). Photo: Anna Rigg.

The five senses (smell), 1642-1650, by Jan Both after Andries Both. Etching. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (2015-0056-12). Photo: Anna Rigg.
     Is it strange that people frown on slovenly Trina Slomps
     Whose ungodly stench carries ten miles in the wind?
     ‘Tis a plague on our senses that children must shit
     In the pots that we use for cooking and eating.

Smell is, understandably, the most scatological print in the series. A woman changes a toddler’s nappy while another child sits on the potty in the corner, forcing the bystanders to avert their noses. The past can indeed be like a foreign country at times, but satires like this are a reminder that some things – like toilet humour – don’t change much.

The prints and their verse captions get their laughs very much at the peasants’ expense. The Boths’ Five senses, like many Dutch genre scenes from the same period, exploit the image of peasants as comically earthy folk, driven by creatural appetites and wallowing in the muck of their own ignorance.[1] The Dutch word boer, meaning peasant or farmer, has its English equivalent in the word boorish (uncouth or ill-mannered) – and looking at the stereotypes depicted in artworks like these, it’s not hard to see why.

Smell, circa 1750, unknown artist (school of Philippe Mercier). Oil on canvas. Bequest of Mrs E.G. Elgar, 1945. Te Papa (1992-0035-1795).

Smell, circa 1750, unknown artist (school of Philippe Mercier). Oil on canvas. Bequest of Mrs E.G. Elgar, 1945. Te Papa (1992-0035-1795).

The five senses joins another allegory of the senses in Te Papa’s collection: four paintings of Sight, Hearing, Smell, and Taste (but not Touch, which would originally have rounded out the series). Painted a century later in the mid-eighteenth century, by a follower of the Anglo-French artist Philippe Mercier, these pictures couldn’t be further removed from the Both brothers’ prints. Elegant young children, dressed in seventeenth-century silks, hold up emblems of the senses: Smell holds a dainty sprig of flowers, while Taste sips from a silver teaspoon. Seen in the context of the Boths’ peasant scenes, these paintings’ serene decorum seems all the more fantastical. Butter wouldn’t melt in these rococo children’s mouths!

Stay tuned over the next few months for news from Mark Stocker about other recent purchases.

Anna Rigg
VUW Summer Scholar, Collections

 

[1] As the Dutch scholar Erasmus put it in a letter in 1534: ‘[…] I tried my best to raise the young people up from the mud of ignorance […]. And my attempts have not been entirely fruitless.’ From Percy S. Allen, Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, 1942, vol. XI, S. 183, (letter no. 3032).

One Response

  1. Eleanor Lee-Duncan

    Great read Anna! I love the comparison of the two prints on Sight.

    Reply

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