The five senses: Touch, Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste – Jan Miense Molenaer

I work with a guy, and I have no qualms in telling you this as I know he reads this blog, and he baffles me. He doesn’t watch films, he doesn’t read things that aren’t in some way factual, he doesn’t really like TV… he does how ever like the conversations about films, as he can comment on how rubbish the film sounds as, he says, “That wouldn’t happen”. He absolutely makes me die laughing on nearly a daily basis. I do however feel like he is missing out on many wonderful things through his debunking of the fantasy, which confuses me further as he does seem to have an appreciation for art, which frankly, if you’re not viewing still life, then really it is all artists interpretation and verges on fantasy, as we all know when artist paint people or scenery, it is very open to artistic license. One of the favourite topics I like to get him on is Greek mythology, as he has read the book by Stephen Fry…”Mythos” which was met almost daily with a run down of what he had read and a “well that wouldn’t happen”.

Therefore, today’s post is dedicated to him, and his preference to things that would happen (and maybe some partaking of ale).

Molenaer was a Dutch artist, and was probably better educated than some of the other artists working at the time he was. He took a lot of inspiration from proverbs and poems by Jacob Cats and Gerbrand Adriaensz. He painted a very wide and varied genre of subjects, from musicians to tavern scenes, school pupils to weddings and of course, “The Five Sense”. Molenaer paints with a clear sense of humour and was seen as a forerunner to Jan Steen.

Painted in 1637, “The Five Senses” are five not very large panels, showing his interpretation of things we all use every day, without probably even registering we are doing it. Each of the panels have a main protagonist or a pair of protagonists. There is a beautiful correlation between the panels, which I will come to after we have looked at them in detail.


We all love watching drunken domestic take place in a public house. This is no different. Here the man is literally trying his luck, as he puts a hand up the skirt of the woman, as he stupidly smirks out at the audience. Thankfully, this woman seems to be one smart cookie, as she is armed with a shoe to beat him off with, as the man at the table looks on at the events. This means that there are two elements of touch here, one which is a misjudged caress and the other which will be one almighty wallop over the top of the head. The picture is so engaging, and there is no mistake over the intent of the painting. The detail is delightful in this panel, from the depiction of the facial expressions to the action that is taking place.



Here we see a sorrowful couple looking in to the bottom of a jug. You can really feel what the couple are feeling in this painting, a mournful realisation that the drink that was once in it, is no longer. The subjects of the painting bear no mind at all to the artist who was probably frantically sketching them near by as they rue their consumption. I love how the light plays across the couples faces, showing the rosy cheeks from drink. His thumb heavily pressed on the lever of the lid of the pitcher, and his lady friend tilting it towards him to ensure that there really is nothing left in the pitcher. The long shadow across the table from the oil lamp, giving the feel that is has been a long night. The attention to detail of the main focal point is extraordinary, you can see the stitching in his jacket, and his raised eyebrow, which is enhanced by the murky figure behind them. There to make it feel they are in a public place, but not overbearing to distract the view from the main attraction.


In contrast to sight, which was a fairly still piece, and dower in the atmosphere presented, hearing is much more lively and jubilant. The man in the left gazes out at the audience, almost as if he has been called, as he raised his stein of beer. The other two at the table appear to be joining in the frivolities, although they are less detailed, again to keep the viewers attention on the man at the forefront. You can again see the rosy cheeks, indicating the consumption of alcohol. The raised hands of both the man in the foreground, and what (after some research) appears to be a woman in the background, almost warrant a response from the viewer of the painting, as they have been immortalised in an act of spontaneity of an exciting moment.


This is by far my favourite as it is so beautifully graphic. We all know that smell… you can get a whiff of it a mile off, and the mother as she cleans the child, looks eerily out at the audience as she fixes the issue. We can see just how bad it is from the reaction of, what I would imagine, is her husband as he grips his nose and holds his ale away from the scent, lest it sour it. The woman and child appear to be much better lit in this picture to emphasis that is what the focal point of the panel is. The look on the mother’s face is that of resigned indignation of the task. There is a man between the couple who appears to be laughing at the situation, most likely at the fuss the man at the table is making.


Last, but not least, we see someone getting a drop of ale. With his back turned to the audience, he is so wrapped up in the activity of drinking, that he couldn’t care less what is happening around him. His companion at the table, smoking his pipe, dipped in the embers bowl, so that he can get the full flavour of the tobacco which fills the pipe bowl. These guys are so immersed in their activities, they don’t even notice the onlooker behind them. The painting is full of action which the audience isn’t part off, almost cut out of this, which gives the feeling of not being involved in this drinking, and it is actually less enjoyable than hearing, almost being a need than a social pass time.

Now that you have seen the five panels, hopefully you will have noticed that in three, the main focal points look out to the viewers, inviting them in to the activities which are happening, making you feel part of that, while two shut the view out, creating almost an oscillation between the paintings. These are all sense which we have probably seen in real life in one way or another, but Molenaer really brings them to life in true Dutch style.

There are a few things, which for me make a Dutch artist stand out, one is the colour pallet. It is usually a full range of colour, but then almost muted back, as if being viewed by candle light. You can see this in a lot of the Dutch masters, as they create a vignette to their paintings. There is also a smeariness to the backgrounds, which give the feel of action, but not enough to detract from the main piece. Molenaer uses these techniques to bring out his personality in to his work, with complementing colours to what is happening in the scenes and picking out enough detail in the backgrounds to give the audience a feel of life going on around the scene, without intruding. This particular technique, gives a depth of field to the paintings which we now use regularly in many media genres, but Molenaer seems to have mastered this long before many others did.

These paintings are now housed in the Mauritshuis museum at The Hague and they are really something to see in real life. The humour of them hit you as soon as you catch sight of them, which is a really pleasant take change to a lot of the portraiture which is displayed around them (although they are in the same place as “The girl with the pearl earring”).

What do you think of Molenaer’s “The five Sense”? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?


3 thoughts on “The five senses: Touch, Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste – Jan Miense Molenaer

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  1. Can I just say, not only do I think you incredibly gifted in writing, you are such an incredibly person! I always see you helping other people on the community pool so I thought I would check your blog out and I’m so glad that I did! Thank you for spreading some positivity around the community and making it even more of a wonderful place to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much 😊 it pays to help others, and actually I am just paying it forward from someone who saw something in my writing 😊 I’m so pleased to have you following


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