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Starting December 1st 2016, Rembrandt’s The Four Senses can be seen in The Rembrandt House Museum. These four small panels representing sight, hearing, smell and touch, are Rembrandt’s earliest known works.

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a.                                                     b.                                                    c.                                                      d.

 

a. Rembrandt, The Spectacles Pedlar (Sight), c. 1624, oil on panel, 21 x 17.8 cm, Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden

This is the only painting in the series that is not in a private collection. Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden acquired the work in 2012. A strangely-dressed man is shown prominently in profile. The basket of merchandise he carries on a strap around his middle identifies him as a pedlar. His basket contains spectacles and accessories for spectacle wearers, such as cords and pouches. While he hides his left arm behind his back, he hands a pair of pince-nez to an old man wearing a fur cap. Beside the old man stands an old woman with a black shawl over her head. She already has spectacles on her nose, but she does not seem to be benefiting greatly from them: she peers rather short-sightedly through her recent acquisition. The old man seems to be hesitating. He points inquiringly at his large nose: would the spectacles actually fit? But the spectacles seller looks back at him confidently, even grinning slightly. In the seventeenth century the Dutch expression ‘to sell someone a pair of spectacles’ meant to cheat someone, make a fool of them. And this is what is happening here. Seventeenth-century viewers would know at once that the spectacles pedlar was untrustworthy. The old-fashioned jerkin with slashes at the shoulders, the flamboyant turban and the frivolous earring are all elements of the familiar image of the confidence trickster. There are all kinds of unclear figures pictured around this trio. The scene appears to be unfolding in a marketplace. With broad brushstrokes and a great deal of paint, the young Rembrandt depicted the expressive tableau as a scene from everyday life.

 

b. Rembrandt, The Three Singers (Hearing), c. 1624, panel, The Leiden Collection, New York

Three figures, mouths slightly open, are placed together in a triangular composition. On the right stands a balding old man with pince-nez on his nose. He wears a fur-trimmed housecoat with short sleeves. With his left arm and hand he holds a large, thick music book, which is partially supported on a table. He appears to beat time with his right hand, while all three figures sing a song from the book. An old woman beside the man joins in; she has a white shawl around her shoulders and a striking coloured turban wound around her head. A young man, his curly hair showing under his dark cap, looks over her shoulder. Rembrandt may have used the features of his friend and colleague Jan Lievens for this young man’s face. He highlighted details in various places with a touch of white paint, such as the spectacles, the old man’s large nose and thumbnail, and the gold button on his sleeve. Warm candlelight coming from the left illuminates the faces, particularly the man’s caricatural features. His ear, glowing red in the light, features prominently. There can be no misunderstanding: this is all about singing and listening.

 

c. Rembrandt, The Unconscious Patient (Smell), c. 1624, panel, The Leiden Collection, New York

This little painting was only discovered in 2015 at a small auction in New Jersey. Initially it was thought to be an unimportant nineteenth-century work. Restoration and cleaning revealed the original composition in brilliant colours. After careful study it was possible to attribute the work to Rembrandt. It shows a young man sitting on a chair. His eyes are closed, his head lies slightly to the side and his skin is pale. Everything indicates that he is unconscious. The two figures beside him wear absurd clothes: colourful fur-trimmed caps, flashy gold chains, theatrical costumes and earrings. One holds a white cloth to the young man’s nose; they are a quack and his assistant. The young man’s bare arm might indicate that the two had subjected him to bloodletting, a common treatment for many ailments in the seventeenth century. The man on the left, with a napkin over his hand, supports the arm. The young man was clearly not supposed to faint during the procedure, as can be seen from the worried expressions on the craggy faces of the two swindlers. The white cloth was probably dipped in smelling salts that release ammonia: the irritating smell is a strong stimulant that brings a person round, so the sense of smell is key here. The painting is signed with the earliest Rembrandt signature we know of. With impish humour, the young painter added his name in a little portrait of a man pinned to a cupboard upper right in the background. The three letters of the monogram ‘RHF’ stand for ‘Rembrandt Harmenszoon fecit’; ‘fecit’ is Latin for ‘made this.’

 

d. Rembrandt, The Operation (Touch), c. 1624, panel, The Leiden Collection, New York.

Lit by a candle in the hand of an assistant, a man performs an operation on the head of a patient, who undergoes the procedure with a contorted face and clenched fists. This is a ‘stone cutting’; the gullible patient is having a stone removed from his head. Seventeenth-century viewers immediately understood that the man in this scene is being tricked. When someone was said to have a stone in their head it meant that they were stupid; the removal of the stone was the cure. The fact that the main thing to be removed in this case is the man’s money can be deduced from the fat purse that has been added as a telling detail at the bottom of the picture. The ‘doctor’, like his assistant, is dressed in outlandish old-fashioned clothes that would befit comic actors in the theatre, revealing the operation as the work of a quack doctor. The theatrical costumes and the gleaming light on the figures are reminiscent of the Utrecht followers of the work of the famous Italian artist Caravaggio. Rembrandt was inspired by Caravaggio’s style, with powerful contrasts between light and dark, through the work of Jan Lievens.

 

More information about Rembrandt’s The Four Senses in The Rembrandt House Museum.

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