Jan Brueghel the Younger
1601-1678 | Flemish
Jan van Balen
1611-1654 | Flemish
Spring, or the Allegory of Smell
Oil on panel
Two of the leading Flemish artists of the 17th century, Jan Brueghel the Younger and Jan van Balen, collaborated in the creation of this remarkable scene entitled Spring, or the Allegory of Smell. Brueghel, the grandson of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, was renowned for his allegorical figures, while van Balen was among the greatest landscape painters in Antwerp of his generation. A melodic balance is struck between van Balen’s vast panoramic view, reminiscent of ancient Greece, and Brueghel’s distinctive figures, both executed with the level of precision for which each artist is famed.
The pair continued in the painterly tradition established by their fathers, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hendrick van Balen, who also frequently collaborated. In fact, the elder Brueghel and van Balen created a series of works on the subjects of the senses themselves; these are now in the Museo Nacional del Prado (Madrid).
The present work follows in this prodigious tradition, ingeniously translating the elusive, non-visual experience of scent into the allegorical realm by painting a perfumer engaged in the act of producing a fragrance. By revealing the use of vials and stills, Brueghel sought to demystify the process of perfuming, showing it was scientific and not based in magic or realms of sorcery as was commonly believed at the time. Conversely, this painting also served to create a visual lexicon for perfume chemistry and a methodology for scientific education. Displaying an incredible level of detail, it provides a meticulous record of the traditional flowers of the region, as well as new species such as tulips, irises and crown imperials that had recently arrived from the East. The dried rhizomes of the blue iris, also known as the Florence Lily, produce an intense and precious essence when distilled that made it particularly precious to perfumers.
Chloris, the goddess of flowers, is pictured at the center of the scene. Her classical beauty is juxtaposed against the traditional tools of the perfumer’s trade. At her left, Brueghel illustrates the tools and process of steam distillation. Petals or flower extracts are placed into a still with boiling water. The steam transports the essence into the first glass flask, called a condenser, then into a second flask called a separator. Since the essence is less dense than water, it rises to the top of the flask to be easily separated. This traditional method of fragrance extraction is still used to this day.
In the foreground, the boxes of ointment recall the technique of enfleurage. With cold enfleurage, the petals are placed in drawers filled with cold fat; with hot enfleurage, the petals are plunged into a bath of hot animal fat. Once the flowers have released all their essence, they are discarded, and the fat is washed until the absolute essence has been obtained.
The last raw material, the civet, or “musk cat,” lying down in the foreground, provides musk, the base and fixative of perfumes. The rosary to its right is probably made from gomme agradante (gum tragacanth) derived from tree sap. A stick of incense is burning. To the side, there are a series of perfume vials including Aqua d’Angelus (angel water), a highly fashionable 17th century perfume, while the gloves evoke the profession of the perfumer. Lemon and orange trees, roses, potted carnations, hollyhocks and saffron lilies complete this garden of visual and scent delights. In the foreground are scented pads and small black objects of irregular size with white dots. These are burning tablets, and the different number of dots helped distinguish the perfume they emit. The very small scent ball on the right is a pomander used to hold perfumes and usually worn around the neck. The stately Château of Mariemont looms in the background, a symbol of Albert VII, Archduke of Austria and Isabella Clara Eugenia, who ruled the region until 1633. Both the rolling landscape and the highly detailed figures reveal the mastery of their respective painters; Brueghel and van Balen have achieved a level of mastery in this work that is worthy of their heritages.
The Brueghel dynasty of artists were known as the first genre painters, focusing upon the gentry and allegorical scenes as opposed to religious or historical subjects. This was due in large part to events that occurred during the Eighty Years’ War, also known as the Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), in which the 17 Provinces that comprised the Netherlands revolted against their Habsburg rulers, led by Spain’s King Philip II. Influenced heavily by Lutheranism in Germany and Anglicanism in England, the pull away from the Catholicism mandated by the Spanish allowed more secular subjects to become acceptable, and in turn, incredibly popular amongst wealthy Netherlands patrons.
Another element that appealed to art patrons of the day was the financial security of investing in their native art. Especially during the turmoil of the War, investing in banks and even land was, at best, speculative and was still primarily controlled by the Church. Art, on the other hand, proved safe and more stable. To commission a large work, such as Spring, or the Allegory of Smell, meant purchasing the best: a masterpiece created by the most coveted and renowned artists of the day, both of whom were descended from artistic families whose name alone commanded tremendous respect.
This painting was displayed at the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Holland. A similar work by Jan Brueghel the Younger and Jan van Balen entitled Landscape With Ceres (Allegory of Earth) resides at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, while another collaboration entitled Allegory of Touch is in the Calvet Museum of Avignon. Other works by Jan Brueghel the Younger can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Norton Simon Museum in California.
Panel: 20 5/8" high x 34" wide
Frame: 25 3/4" high x 40 1/8" wide
Private collection, France