Allegory of Smell

Jan van Bijlert

(1597 - Utrecht - 1671)
Oil on canvas 96.7 x 91.1 cm (38.2 x 35.8 in.) Signed 'Jv bijle...' Utrecht, The Netherlands - before 1631

Jan van Bijlert was a pupil of his father, the Utrecht glass painter Herman van Bijlert. Later, he was apprenticed to Abraham Bloemaert, teacher of many young Utrecht painters. Sometime around 1617, Jan travelled south and is recorded in Rome in 1621. There he was one of the founding members of the Bentveughels (birds of a flock), a group of artists from Northern Europe. All using nicknames, Bijlert went by Aeneas, the Trojan hero.

As so many other painters staying in Rome, Bijlert was influenced by the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio. Caravaggism was the dominant style during the 1610s and 1620s in Italy and had a strong impact on art all over Europe. After his return to Utrecht in 1624, Bijlert painted many compositions in his own typical Caravaggesque style. During the 1630s his style developed, according to the fashion of those days, into a more refined and classical manner, influenced by Gerard van Honthorst (1596-1656), fellow painter and court artist in Utrecht. Later in the 1630s Bijlert changed his style to fit in with the typically Dutch genre pieces of small musical companies or card players.

In 1631, the civic guard in Delft organized a lottery to raise money. The first prize for a shooting competition was a series of paintings of the five senses made by five Utrecht artists: Gerard van Honthorst, Abraham Bloemaert, Paulus Moreelse, Jan van Bijlert, and Hendrick ter Brugghen. The latter had already died in 1629, but was represented by Allegory of Taste, a painting from 1627, that is now in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Although both paintings are quite sensual, the content is elevated as the subject is an allegory based on a respectable tradition in art representing the five senses.

The iconography of both allegories derive from a print series by Frans Floris (1519/20-1570) of the Five Senses, dated 1561. Every image shows a woman with an attribute and animal. The attribute refers to the particular sense, whereas the animal is chosen because of its ability in using that sense better than us human. In the case of the Allegory of Smell, the print depicts a woman and dog both smelling flowers. The ability of the dog to smell is proverbial: ‘he has the nose of a dog’. The other three paintings that were offered in the lottery are unknown today, but it seems logical that their iconography was in accordance with the prints by Floris. This would mean that the Allegory of Sight showed a woman with a mirror in the company of an eagle, who can see very far; the Allegory of Hearing would represent a woman making music in the company of a deer, because he has an excellent hearing; and that the Allegory of Feeling showed a woman who is being bitten by a bird while also a tortoise is depicted, who can’t feel anything because of his thick shell.

Until 2016, when the present painting - known through a b/w photograph in the library of the Fondazione Roberto Longhi in Florence - reappeared on the art market, its whereabouts where unknown. Hopefully the remaining three missing allegories from the Delft lottery by Honthorst, Bloemaert and Moreelse will resurface in the near future as well, completing this dispersed series of the Five Senses painted by the leading painters from Utrecht.

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Mireille Mosler, Ltd.

"Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Paintings and Drawings, Old Master Paintings and Drawings"

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