by Claudia Swan
As an art historian specialized in art of the Golden Age, I spend a lot of time thinking about the sense of sight.
The exhibition Asia in Amsterdam encourages us, I think, to consider the senses more broadly than is normally the case for the Golden Age. It does so by looking beyond the visual glories of the paragons of Dutch painting Rembrandt and Vermeer, for example, and telling the story of seventeenth-century Dutch culture through objects, of which paintings are ultimately only one sort. Textiles and jewels would have been worn and invoke the sense of touch; the spices the VOC exported from Asia tickled the olfactory sense and the sense of taste, and porcelain plates and cups were used for dining, for example. We are reminded that taste is always more than what meets the eye: the very word “aesthetic” means, in Greek, “of sensation or perception,” and is not necessarily restricted to vision.
When we enter the world of Dutch Golden Age trade, we enter a world redolent with sensory delights. While many were visual—the coloring of exotic shells and textiles, or the sheen of mother-of-pearl, for example—as many were tactile, olfactory, gustatory, aural: spiky coral, pepper and sandalwood, spices and tea and musical instruments and the many birds that never made it all the way back to Europe (collections of the era contained surprisingly numerous birds’ beaks and feathers, most likely remnants of live specimens that did not survive the journey).
Pictures are primarily addressed to sight or vision; we appreciate them because of how they look, and we take pleasure in the ways in which pictures fool us, visually, into thinking that what we see is actually before us. A picture might look like an individual, seated or standing before us, but this is the supple fiction of painting, a fiction Renaissance thinkers formulated as the ability to preserve the likeness of the living after their death, and to make the absent present. Pictures also trick the eye by evincing the texture and sheen or coloring of objects so vividly as to cause us to wonder whether a laid table still life is actually before us, on the other side of the painting’s frame.
Consider Hendrick Goltzius’s portrait of the merchant and shell collector Jan Govertszen van der Aer, for instance, or Caesar van Everdingen’s portrait of Wollebrand Geleynssen de Jongh, both glorious fictions that address us directly. Both sitters appear to look us in the eyes, and to ask us to look further. Van der Aer seems to want us to join him in this private moment: his jacket is loosened and his collar open and he is contemplating a selection of gorgeous specimens of his collection of shells. Indeed, we become the collector: he is not looking at the extraordinary, elaborately striated nacreous curiosities (the shells) before him, but we may.
What I find myself thinking about more and more, though, are the other senses. In the early modern era, sight was roundly considered the most elevated and most privileged of the five senses, according to conventions that go back to ancient Greek philosophy. As an art historian, trying to recuperate the history of other senses is particularly challenging, because I work with visual artifacts. But are these artifacts only visual?
Look again at van der Aer: he is touching, holding, feeling the variegated outer surface of a turbo shell; his fingertips are poised to maximize receptivity. The weight of the shell asks to be compared with the weight of the others on the tabletop. Likewise, imagine—as Golden Age collectors certainly did and as this painting asks us, I think, to do—touching the other shells, their pointed tips and striations. Imagine turning them in your hand, seeing the patterns shift even as you come to know with your fingers the edges and surfaces. Shells were appreciated in Golden Age Holland as works of art, as Nature’s artifice.
Vessels made of shells set in silver, such as the mounted turbo shell attributed to Daniel Schilperoort, were artistic responses to the artistry of Nature. And while we see them in museums and in cases, early modern owners and collectors would certainly have held them, fingered the filigree, and perhaps even drunk from them. Wollebrand Geleynssen de Jongh’s portrait also invokes the senses more broadly, in related ways: with one hand poised on his hip, arm akimbo, he calls attention to the brocade of his suit, silky and metallic. The metallic threads would have felt different to the touch than the nearby hilt of his sword, though, or the chain and medal he wears. In his other hand he grasps a staff of office made of ebony and mother-of pearl, a sign of power and an example of the sort of sensuous luxurious trade goods he procured for his countrymen.
It is when we prick up our ears and alert our other senses to the possibility that there is more than what meets the eye to luxury consumption and trade in the Golden Age, we can appreciate accounts of how the city of Amsterdam chose to honor the visiting dignitary, Marie de Medici, in 1638:
“When the Queen entered [the VOC Headquarters, The East India House] the courtyard was spread with precious textiles and in the great chamber the Investors had laid out a sizable banquet that was not only gratifying to the tongue but also aromatic and pleasing to the eye. Kings and Princes might have fêted her in a more costly manner but the Company could not have done so in a more suitable manner: they presented dishes to Her Majesty, or fictive dishes, from the Indies and only made in those lands. Here there were…the fruits and plants of the Persians, Arabians, Moluccans, Japanese, and Chinese, served in large porcelain serving basins, arranged on a long table, the strangeness of which delighted the Queen. Arrayed on the table were round and long pepper, beautiful to behold, mace, and three kinds of nutmeg, one in its shell, one wrapped in mace, and one preserved, which showed how fruitful the Moluccan islands are. Cinnamon and cassia, piled on top of one another, showed that they came from the East. There were bowls filled with cloves, with masses of raw and untied Persian and Chinese silks. The whiteness of the borax struck the eyes, and the scent and smell of benzoin the nose. Musk, styrax, sandalwood, indigo, and many other pigments lay in special saucers.
This feast for the eyes also contained dragon’s blood and cakes of resin of mace, and Gutta Gamba as yellow as gold, which shone among the other dishes. Incense and myrrh from Saba, once used by pagans as offerings to the gods, where used here as offerings to the Goddess of France’s sense of smell. Cubeba, rhubarb, sugar, saltpeter, from which dreadful gunpowder is made, all lay in their places. She was even served lacquer, a wax that is made by bees, precious oils of macis, nutmegs, and candied and regular ginger. Medici’s eyes were stunned and she imagined, seeing and sensing the exotic and unusual banquet…Such daily fare as pheasant, bream liver, and partridge, and wild swine, and other recherché delicacies that the tongue seeks out to gratify the palate could not compete with this feast.”
Editor’s Note: To show how precious a good spice rub was to the Dutch in the 17th century, the folks at NPR’s Planet Money kicked off 2016 by cooking a peacock pie recipe published in 1612. Listen to the show to see how it turned out.
Claudia Swan is participating in a Public Study Day for Asia in Amsterdam, taking place Saturday, April 16.
Claudia Swan (PhD 1997; Columbia University) is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History at Northwestern University. She teaches courses on northern European visual culture 1400-1700, art and science, the history of collecting, and the history of the imagination. She is the author of The Clutius Botanical Watercolors; Art, Science, and Witchcraft in Early Modern Holland: Jacques de Gheyn II; and numerous articles on early modern Dutch art and art and science. She is also co-editor (with Londa Schiebinger) ofColonial Botany: Science, Commerce, Politics. Swan has held fellowships and grants from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, and the NEH. Professor Swan is currently working on two books. One is a brief history of the imagination, and a second on the role of exotic goods and exoticism in the formation of the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century.