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).
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.
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!
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?
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 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. 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.
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.
VUW Summer Scholar, Collections
 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).