Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Conversation Piece (The Sense of Smell)

Jan Ekels the Younger (Dutch, Amsterdam 1759–1793 Amsterdam)
probably 1791
Oil on canvas
25 7/8 x 23 1/2 in. (65.7 x 59.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bertram L. Podell, 1981
Accession Number:
Not on view
This characteristic work by Ekels was probably painted in 1791, as the now fragmentary date was read in the past. The picture almost certainly comes from a series of five canvases depicting the Five Senses, of which four paintings are presently known. The Sense of Hearing (location unknown; see Liedtke 2007, fig. 49) was in collections together with The Met's picture until 1964, and reappeared on the English art market in 1994. The Sense of Taste ("The Wine Tasters") signed and dated 1791, is in the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden. It depicts a standing gentleman draining the last drop from a wineglass, while a maid offers a glass of wine to a seated man holding a clay pipe. The fourth canvas (National Theatre, London), has confounded critics, since it too appears to represent Taste. Two men sit casually at a table, one holding a glass of wine, the other a pipe. A young woman stands behind the table, resting her arm on the back of a chair. The man with the wineglass points to it and speaks while glancing upward thoughtfully, as if extolling the virtues of the wine. His two companions listen, smile, and seem to stare at the glass. Within the narrow parameters defined by the series as a whole, it is reasonable to assume that the picture represents Sight.

When the New York painting was sold in 1964, it was entitled Taste, and it was correctly noted that a man takes snuff, another man smokes (he lights his clay pipe in a metal brazier), and a woman dips a biscuit in a glass of wine. However, Knoef (1928) was surely correct in calling the painting Smell. In each of the four known pictures, the figure on the left appears to define the subject: a man drinks, a man sniffs, a woman listens demonstratively (her seated companion does not), and a man points to his glass as if drawing attention to the wine's color. It is conceivable, of course, that the London painting stood for Taste in another series of pictures, but none of its figures is tasting anything, and biscuits (present in Leiden and New York) have not been provided. No other known painting by Ekels qualifies as a representation of one of the senses.

The four paintings are all on canvas, with the same dimensions. Each one shows two men and a woman in a room, which is furnished with a colorful rug, a covered table with the same kind of chairs, and in three of the pictures a foot warmer. The backgrounds all feature a bare wall with a curtain pulled to one side and a door to the left or right, with an overdoor painting depicting a classical relief (in the present picture, maidens worship a Bacchic herm). Indications that at least one of the men is visiting occur throughout: a coat tossed over a chair, a hat set down on the floor, and in the New York picture a walking stick.

The idea of painting a series of pictures devoted to the Five Senses is one of the many notions Ekels derived from seventeenth-century Dutch art. However, the treatment of the theme in a suite of gentrified genre scenes was his own idea. This allowed him to indulge in a none too searching survey of modern manners, and a closer study of various poses, gestures, and expressions. The latter interest, when observed in the series as a whole, creates the impression of an artist who had spent a good deal of time in a drawing academy.

[2016; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower right, on dado): I.EKELS. F/Aº 17[?][1?]—
[Dr. Benedict & Co., Berlin, until 1928]; C. Waltfried (1928; his sale, Jacob Hecht, Berlin, November 13, 1928, no. 386a); ?private collection, Brumfield, Nottingham; sale, Christie's, London, July 17, 1964, no. 209, as "Taste," for 280 gns. to Houthakker; [Bernard Houthakker, Amsterdam, from 1964]; Mr. and Mrs. Bertram L. Podell, New York (until 1981)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.

J. Knoef. "Jan Ekels de Jonge (1759–1793)." Oud-Holland 45 (1928), p. 51, fig. 1, as with the dealer Dr. Benedict & Co., Berlin; calls it "Smell" and dates it 1791; states that it belongs to a series of paintings depicting the five senses [see Notes].

J. Knoef. Tusschen rococo en romantiek: Een bundel kunsthistorische opstellen. The Hague, 1943, pp. 25–26, ill. p. 22.

Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson. The Artist and the Theatre. Melbourne, 1955, pp. 269–70, fig. 2, under no. 42, discuss and illustrate the four known pictures in the series, identifying the work in the National Theatre as "Taste" [see Notes]; state that the MMA painting and "Hearing", from the Waltfried sale in 1928, "are now believed to be in private collections on the Continent".

C. J. de Bruyn Kops. "Een portret van Egbert van Drielst, geschilderd door Jan Ekels de Jonge." Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 16 (June 1968), pp. 63, 66 n. 10, p. 102.

M. L. Wurfbain et al. Catalogus van de Schilderijen en Tekeningen. Leiden, 1983, p. 129, under no. 88.

Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. 193–96, no. 44, colorpl. 44, states that it was probably painted in 1791.

Related Objects

The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John

Artist: Hendrick ter Brugghen (Dutch, The Hague? 1588–1629 Utrecht) Date: ca. 1624–25 Medium: Oil on canvas Accession: 56.228 On view in:Gallery 631

The Disillusioned Medea ("The Enchantress")

Artist: Paulus Bor (Dutch, Amersfoort ca. 1601–1669 Amersfoort) Date: ca. 1640 Medium: Oil on canvas Accession: 1972.261 On view in:Gallery 631

Portrait of a Man, Possibly Nicolaes Pietersz Duyst van Voorhout (born about 1600, died 1650)

Artist: Frans Hals (Dutch, Antwerp 1582/83–1666 Haarlem) Date: ca. 1636–38 Medium: Oil on canvas Accession: 49.7.33 On view in:Gallery 637

Portrait of a Man

Artist: Frans Hals (Dutch, Antwerp 1582/83–1666 Haarlem) Date: early 1650s Medium: Oil on canvas Accession: 91.26.9 On view in:Gallery 637

Equestrian Portrait of Cornelis (1639–1680) and Michiel Pompe van Meerdervoort (1638–1653) with Their Tutor and Coachman ("Starting for the Hunt")

Artist: Aelbert Cuyp (Dutch, Dordrecht 1620–1691 Dordrecht) Date: ca. 1652–53 Medium: Oil on canvas Accession: 32.100.20 On view in:Gallery 638