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Essay – Jan Miense Molenaer – The sense of Taste

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Essay - Jan Miense Molenaer - The sense of Taste

A boy smoking a pipe is likely to provoke an ambivalent initial response in a present-day viewer. The healthy flush in the boy’s cheeks, combined with his rather contemplative gaze and striking fur hat, give him an extremely appealing air. On the other hand, that he should be smoking a pipe at such a tender age – while still a child, in fact – will surely arouse astonishment. But this painting, by the Haarlem artist Jan Miense Molenaer, is not just a picture of a boy. It was originally one in a series of five paintings of children, each representing one of the five senses.1 Series of this kind were extremely popular in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century.2 So A boy smoking a pipe should not be taken as an indication that children started smoking at a remarkably young age in the seventeenth century: Molenaer’s painting of this delightful boy represents the sense of taste.

            Little is known about Molenaer’s early career. His name is first recorded in the membership lists of St Luke’s Guild in 1634, but exactly when he first enrolled is unknown. It is generally assumed that he studied under Frans Hals (cat. no. 21). Both his loose but refined technique and his subject-matter (genre pieces and portraits) are very similar to this master’s work. Molenaer’s oeuvre also shares some common ground with other artists active in Haarlem, such as Adriaen Brouwer (cat. no. 10) and Willem Buytewech (1591/92-1624). Similarities can also be identified with the work of Judith Leyster (cat. no. 34), who may likewise have been one of Hals’s pupils, and who became Molenaer’s wife in 1636. A year later they moved to Amsterdam, probably to take advantage of the growing art market there. Over ten years later, in 1648, by which time the couple owned a country house in Heemstede, they returned to Haarlem with their children.3

Molenaer’s original oeuvre is characterised by fairly small genre pieces, populated by lively figures. He did not shy away from moralistic themes, but tackled them with characteristic humour. One well-known example is the 1636 series of the five senses, which is now in the Mauritshuis.4 On five panels, each measuring just 19.5 x 24 cm, he painted small groups of figures sitting at a table, whose improper behaviour depicted the senses. Taste is represented by two peasants guzzling alcohol and smoking tobacco without any hint of moderation (fig. 1). In this small painting, both drinking and smoking are linked to the sense of taste, as in A boy smoking a pipe. Alcohol and tobacco are frequently depicted in seventeenth-century genre pieces.5 They were also linked in contemporary literature, and were commonly defined as mutually reinforcing addictive vices.6 In contrast to the 1636 painting Taste, Molenaer here decided to have a single figure depict both these activities – moreover, he chose a child. The boy’s thoughtful, almost philosophical gaze suggests that he is pondering the negative side of his behaviour. Molenaer may have been influenced by his famous teacher in his decision to use children to depict the senses. In the 1620s and 1630s, Hals painted many similar series of the five senses: half-figures of playful children, viewed against a neutral background. Molenaer’s series with children was evidently made in the same period.

The series of the five senses including A boy smoking a pipe was not preserved intact, like the one in the Mauritshuis. It was still complete in 1939, when the little paintings were all in the collection of Arthur Kay. At that time, these paintings – which are all unsigned – were attributed to Judith Leyster, but the current attribution to Molenaer has now been generally accepted.7 It was not until after 1951, when the series was sold by the art dealer Wildenstein, that the works ended up in different collections: Hearing and Touch are now in the Phoenix Art Museum, while Smell and Sight were incorporated into private collections. The paintings are uneven in quality; A boy smoking a pipe displays greater refinement than the others. The subtle choice of colour and the loose but bold technique make this panel one of the highlights of Molenaer’s early oeuvre.