Visualising, Perceiving, and Interpreting Smell in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art

Change log
Marx, Elizabeth 

This thesis explores the ways in which artworks described invisible scents, how the depicted scents were perceived, and what interpretations and meanings they held. As research into representations of the olfactory is a relatively novel approach in the History of Art, this thesis proposes a methodology for identifying and interpreting visual allusions to smell. It draws together some of the most compelling cases of manifestations of smell in the art of the Dutch Republic by artists including Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Steen, and Hendrik Goltzius. Over four studies, smell is visualised through a range of olfactory allusions, among them tobacco smoke, incense, pomanders, flowers, fruit, flies, smoking fires, chimneys, smelling salts, beached whales, and cadavers. The thesis uncovers the ways in which depicted scents were once perceived, where studies of Early Modern viewing dynamics suggest that artworks were understood to provoke olfactory experiences. The artists’ perception of depicted scents is also considered, where painted ephemeral fumes can be read as a rhetorical device to express the aspiration to depict the olfactory. Experiments and collaborations with perfumers to reconstruct a selection of scents depicted in key artworks also offer some insight into historic sensory experience. The thesis discusses how olfactory imagery was once interpreted. Artworks express the associations that individuals had with the olfactory, including writers, such as Constantijn Huygens, and physicians, such as Frederik Ruysch, as well as broader groups of consumers within the Dutch Republic. The extensive body of artworks that draw on the olfactory to develop the interpretation or narrative are traced across time and context to reveal the meanings they once held, and their changing significance. By exploring the olfactory in the art of the Dutch Republic, new olfactory iconographies are uncovered, historical multisensory modes of viewing are revived, and entire interpretations, which have faded over the centuries, are restored.

Massing, Jean Michel
Early Modern art, Dutch art, Netherlandish art, iconography, olfactory history, sensory museology, affect, sensory studies, Early Modern medicine, olfactory, smell, sensory
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
AHRC (2112122)
Arts and Humanities Research Council (2112122)