Exhibition: Picturing the Senses in European Art

Sebastiano Ceccarini, "Portrait of the Young Princes Marescotti of Parrano," 1745

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 10 April — 17 July 2011

Sebastiano Ceccarini, “Portrait of the Young Princes Marescotti of Parrano,” 1745

Picturing the Senses in European Art, organized by the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, explores artists’ interest in evoking the five senses through both allegorical and realistic associations. The exhibition of 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century paintings and works on paper is drawn largely from the permanent collections of the Blaffer Foundation and the MFAH, and offers an opportunity to see some significant works that are not often on display while viewing others in a fresh context.

The theme of Picturing the Senses is simple and accessible, yet rooted in classical philosophy and art-historical tradition. “Picturing the Sensesincludes and reaches beyond the traditional scenes and cycles of the senses,” says Leslie Scattone, assistant curator of the Blaffer Foundation, “and covers a variety of subjects that evoke one or more of the senses. While all of the works are mediated through the sense of sight, many appeal to multiple senses, and the discovery of these can be an intriguing process.”

The five senses as a theme in art first emerged in the medieval period, when they were often associated with vice. During the 16th century, the senses began being treated as independent subjects, usually as allegories. A shift to more naturalistic depictions took place in the 17th century, paralleling intellectual developments of the time.

Among the highlights are two etchings by Rembrandt: The Goldsmith (1655) pictures a man creating a sculpture, holding his tool in one hand while embracing his work in the other, and A Man Drawing from a Cast (1641) also illustrates an artist at work, immersed in the subject of his study. Two Jusepe de Ribera paintings are also of note. One represents taste and depicts a man holding a small cask, presumably filled with wine, and the other illustrates touch and depicts a blind scholar feeling the face of a sculpture. Here, the focus on textures and details, such as the creased brow, eye wrinkles, and blackened edge of the thumbnail emphasize the comparison between sight and blindness and perhaps also between painting and sculpture.

In addition, a lush flower and fruit still life by Jan van Huysum evokes a viewer’s senses of smell and taste. Other artists represented are Cristoforo Munari, Pieter de Grebber, Clara Peeters, Frans van Mieris the Elder, Pieter Claesz, Parrasio Micheli, Adriaen van Ostade, Bartolomeo Bettera, Mattia Preti, Edwaert Collier, Jean Lemaire, Jan Saenredam, Hans Collaert II, Jean Le Pautre, Franz Cleyn, and Sebastiano Ceccarini.

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