The Five Senses
This is a series of five small pictures which represent the senses: taste, touch, hearing, smell and sight. Many paintings on this theme were made in the Low Countries in the seventeenth century, and Gonzales Coques painted the series more than once.
A man engaged in a relevant activity represents each sense – Hearing, for example, is a musician. The figures appear to be portraits and, while we can't now identify them all, it may be that each picture shows an artist. All those that have been identified depict contemporary painters or sculptors – the figure of Sight is a portrait of Robert van den Hoeke (1622–1668), a painter who worked in Antwerp.
The pictures appear to have been designed to hang in a particular way. Two men face to the right, two to the left; one – Touch – sits facing the viewer, and was presumably intended to be hung as the central image flanked by the others.
This is a series of five small pictures, each of which represents one of the senses: taste, touch, hearing, smell and sight. Many paintings on this theme were made in the Low Countries in the seventeenth century, and artists approached them in different ways. Sometimes all five senses were referenced in a single painting; often, as here, they were depicted individually. Some artists followed an earlier, rather staid tradition, showing a series of idealised women, each one holding an attribute or attributes to indicate which sense she embodied.
But many painters preferred more naturalistic allegorical scenes of everyday life. The earliest surviving paintings by Rembrandt form a series illustrating the five senses through groups of three characters focused on a different activity (only four now survive). Some were comic, such as Jan Molenaer’s low-life scenes – one shows Touch as a woman beating a man (Mauritshuis, The Hague). Others verged on the quaint, such as a series of children by Dirck Hals (Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede).
Coques painted the series more than once. As well as this version, complete sets survive in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, and Brukenthal National Museum, Sibiu. Like the National Gallery version, these take an apparently simple approach, with the figure of a man engaged in a relevant activity representing each sense – Hearing, for example, is shown as a musician in all three series. But there’s an added dimension in the National Gallery and Antwerp paintings: rather than a generic figure, each appears to be a portrait. The identities of some have been lost, but it may be that each shows an artist; all the figures which have been positively identified depict contemporary painters or sculptors.
In the National Gallery series, the figure of Sight is a portrait of Robert van den Hoeke (1622–1668), a painter and engraver who worked in Antwerp and in Brussels (an engraving of the picture published in a book of 1661 gives the identification). The pipe-smoking figure of Smell is probably the Flemish sculptor and architect Lucas Fayd’herbe (1617–1697), and the lute player who symbolises Hearing may be Jan Philip van Thielen (1618–1677), an Antwerp flower painter. Van Thielen also plays the lute as Hearing in the Antwerp series, where Lucas Fayd’herbe features again as Smell (this time sniffing a tobacco leaf). At least two other artists are depicted in the Antwerp paintings: the sculptor Artus Quellin (1609–1668) as Sight and the portraitist Pieter Meert (about 1620–1669) as Touch (we don’t know who represents Touch in the National Gallery series). The final figure, drinking wine and representing Taste, appears to be the same man in both series. He can’t be reliably identified, but there has been speculation that he might be a self portrait.
The National Gallery paintings appear to have been designed to hang in a particular way. All the men are seated; two face to the right and two to the left. Touch sits facing the viewer, and was presumably intended to be hung as the central image flanked by the others.