Sight and SmellCa. 1620. Oil on canvas, 176 x 264 cm.
This canvas and its companion, Taste, Hearing and Touch (P1404), represent the five senses embodied by female figures in palatial interiors. The sense of smell is conveyed by a woman holding flowers, while Sight contemplates herself in a mirror held by a cherub. They are located in a hall filled with paintings and sculptures, a sort of cabinet of paintings that could reflect an idealized representation of the collections of the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia de Austria (1559-1621; 1566-1633), whose portraits appear on the table at the right of the composition. Sight and Smell and Taste, Hearing and Touch are faithful replicas of two works that the magistrates of Antwerp gave to Alberto and Isabella Clara Eugenia in 1618 when they governed the Southern Netherlands. The originals, lost in a fire at the Coudenberg Palace in Brussels in 1731, were doing by twelve of the leading Flemish painters of the period under the supervision of Jan Brueghel the Elder. Each artist painted different parts of the work according to his specialization. The paintings now at the Museo Nacional del Prado were documented in Madrid in the 1636 inventory of the Alcázar Palace as part of a group of works sent from Antwerp in the previous decade. The archduke and archduchess may have commissioned these works to send to Madrid, possibly so that their relatives would have copies of the originals. The authorship of the pair has generated some controversy. In 1636, the inventory of the Alcázar Palace considered them the work of Peter Paul Rubens and Esneyle, which is probably a reference to the Antwerp still-life painter Frans Snyders (1579-1657). From the eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth, they were listed as originals by Brueghel, and later, other artists were mentioned as possible collaborators. Thus, it became clear that the replicas, like the originals, had been painted by various Antwerp artists. A visual analysis of this work and its companion does not, however, reflect the hand of all the artists involved in the original commission. In the case of Sight and Smell, the paintings and sculptures in the background gallery are recognizably in the style of Frans Francken II, which is characterized by stylized figures and poses and a preference for depictions in cotrapposto. Franken is also the author of some of the paintings depicted as hanging on the walls, such as The Healing of the Blind Man (upper right). The allegorical figures, with rounded faces, jutting chins, and voluminous forms, recall the style of Hendrik van Balen, a specialist in small-format works, while the landscapes hanging in the foreground recall the styles of Jan Wildens (1585/86-1653) and Joos de Momper (1564-1635). The involvement of Jan Brueghel the Elder has also been debated, but is suggested in some details of both works as well as in the overall and original composition. Here, the flowers on the left and the objects on the tables seem to be by his hand. The works hanging on the walls of Sight and Smell reflect the thematic variety of painting from Antwerp. Some are mythological images of female nudes, including a small bacchanal located on the left side of the hallway, and The Judgment of Paris, displayed prominently in the upper row of paintings in the foreground. The Spanish Catholic Church was opposed to this type of image, which it considered lascivious and sinful. As the Carmelite Jesús José María (1575-1629) wrote in his Primera Parte de las excelencias de la virtud de la castidad (First Part of the Excellent Aspects of the Virtue of Chastity) in 1601, The antechambers and galleries of the princes are already filled with this filth. Nevertheless, the monarchs and other noblemen collected them in abundance. One of the paintings of nudes depicted as hanging along the corridor (just below the chandelier), Vulcan Surprising Venus and Mars, attracts attention due to the curtain that partially covers it. The presence of such curtains was customary for various reasons, such as protecting artworks from light or emphasizing important works in a collection, but in some cases, they were used to cover unseemly paintings containing nudes. Thus, in the 1617 inventory of the property of Isabel de Vega (d. 1617), a curtain covered a Birth of Venus by Rubens, and in 1653 at the Buen Retiro Palace, a curtain was ordered to mask a painting of discord ... because the three goddesses are overly naked (Text drawn from Suárez Blanco, A.: Splendor, Myth, and Vision. Nudes from the Prado, 2016, pp. 92-97).