Don’t Just Look at These Paintings—Smell Them Too, Says New Dutch Exhibition

“Scent dispensers” will emit odors fragrant and foul to evoke 17th-century Europe

Art scent
At the new exhibition at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, scent dispensers will let viewers smell scents associated with the paintings. Mauritshuis

Looking at Jan van der Heyden’s 17th-century painting View of Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, a modern viewer may notice a charming rowboat, gliding swans and old brick buildings. When Ariane van Suchtelen, curator of the Dutch art museum Mauritshuis, researched a new exhibition, she noticed something else. As she tells Artnet News’s Menachem Wecker, the painting includes an outhouse that empties into the canal right beside a spot where a woman is washing her clothes. But, she says, most museum visitors looking at the painting probably project their experiences of the modern-day, relatively clean canals onto it.

“We don’t have that ‘smell memory,’” van Suchtelen says.

A new exhibition, scheduled to open at Mauritshuis as soon as the museum safely reopens, will give visitors a deeper experience of this and other paintings by pairing the art with relevant experiences for the nose. Titled “Smell the Art: Fleeting–Scents in Colour,” the show includes “scent dispensers” that, with the push of a foot pedal, release a puff of scented air.

As Laura Cumming reports for the Guardian, the choice of 17th-century Dutch artwork as the subject of a smelly exhibition is fitting. Artists of that time and place were particularly interested in evoking smell and taste. Rembrandt van Rijn painted smelling salts in use in Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell) (c. 1624-25), while Abraham Mignon created bold-hued still lives of fruit and flowers.

In addition to the polluted canal—a smell Artnet News compares to “a dirty gym bag full of spoiled fish”—the exhibition lets visitors experience the smells of a linen cupboard, bleaching fields, ambergris and myrrh. Another scent the museum provided to reporters replicates the perfume from a pomander—a sweet-smelling container designed to ward off foul scents and “bad air” that 17th-century Europeans believed caused illness.

View of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam
Jan van der Heyden, View of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, c.1670. Panel, 41.4 x 52.3 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague Mauritshuis

Other sections of the exhibition address the role of scent in 17th-century Dutch life. One theme is religious conflicts over Catholics’ use of perfumed smoke as part of heavily sensory religious services, in contrast to the Protestant focus on the unadorned word of God. The exhibition also touches on how increasing trade with—and exploitation of—people in other parts of the world led to the arrival of new aromas. Some paintings on display can clearly suggest a smell even without a scent dispenser, like The Five Senses: Smell (1637) by Jan Miense Molenaer, which depicts a mother wiping her baby’s bottom.

Smell is often considered the most evocative sense. As Yale University neuroscientist Justus Verhagen tells Artnet News, there’s a good reason for that.

“The sense of smell is tightly interwoven with the evolutionarily old limbic system of the brain by having direct access to structures like the amygdala, hippocampal complex, and cortex,” Verhagen says. “These are strongly involved in emotions and memories.” In contrast, vision and other senses have a “much less direct” cognitive connection to memory and emotion.

The exhibition is not the first to bring smells to a museum. As Pablo Alvarez de Toledo Müller of Spain’s Nebrija University writes for the Conversation, olfactory art emerged as a discipline in the 1980s. The concept claimed the design of perfume and scents as an artistic endeavor and led to exhibitions designed with visitors’ noses in mind, such as “The Art of Scent,” which debuted at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York in 2012.

“Fleeting–Scents in Colour” is set to open as soon as the Mauritshuis begins admitting visitors again and run through August 29. The museum is also preparing “fragrance boxes” with four of the scents from the exhibition. For €25 ($29.95), people can purchase scents to sniff at home while they participate in a digital tour of the show.

“I don’t think that’s been done before—that you can actually smell something at home,” van Suchtelen tells Artnet News. “We have to see how it works. This box is still an experiment.”

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