Fleeting - Scents in colour

Tentoonstelling Vervlogen Mauritshuis

Have you ever wondered what an Amsterdam canal smelled like 400 years ago? It would have been pretty grim: excrement, waste materials and all kinds of filth were dumped into the water. The same water that poorer housewives then did their laundry in. Personal and general hygiene were far from what they are today. People were convinced that foul smells could harm their health. Luckily there were all kinds of tricks for disguising unpleasant smells and situations. Wealthy women carried a pomander on a chain, then an expensive fashion accessory. As well as looking good, this also meant they could also protect themselves against dangerous odours.

Suggestion of smell

In some 17th-century artworks the suggestion of smell is so strong that you can almost imagine yourself in the moment. Do you experience a painting differently if you can also literally smell the work as you look at it?

The exhibition Fleeting – Scents in Colour is a voyage of discovery that will inspire visitors to experience art from a new perspective. Via the various scent dispensers, they can smell a clean linen cupboard, bleaching fields, ambergris, myrrh and of course the foul-smelling canals.

Tentoonstelling Vervlogen Mauritshuis

About the exhibition

In the exhibition Fleeting – Scents in Colour you can smell the 17th century. As well as wonderful artworks where the colours jump from the surface and the wonderful scent almost comes to greet you, there are also paintings and drawings where you’d rather hold your nose. As well as seeing the paintings, you will also experience them with your sense of smell. Via (covid-safe) dispensers, visitors will be able to experience various smells represented in the art, both fragrant and foul. 

Vervlogen MH Zaalfoto 06

The exhibition explores the portrayal of smell and odour in 17th-century art, the scents of the past, the role of scent in stories, the suggestion of scent in artworks, as well as sensory perception. Even though scent is the subject of the exhibition and there will be all kinds of smells to enjoy, it is the artworks above all that carry the story.

Vervlogen MH Zaalfoto 04

Exhibition themes

The exhibition considers the portrayal of scent in art from both an art-historical angle and a more general historical perspective. The almost 50 paintings, drawings, print and objects tell us more about themes including scent, health and hygiene. For example, in the 17th century it was believed that putrid and foul smells were harmful to health and should be suppressed with other disease-repelling fragrances.

We also learn more about the role of scent in religion. Scent plays a role in all manner of Catholic rituals, and the divine can reveal itself by means of perfumed smoke. During the Reformation, Protestantism dispensed with the sensory acknowledgement of faith and placed the word of God at the heart of worship.

Werk Anatomische Les
Michiel and Pieter van Mierevelt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Willem van der Meer, 1617. Canvas, 144 x 198 cm. Museum Prinsenhof, Delft

Another theme is scents inside and outdoors. Various works offer us a direct glimpse of the 17th-century landscape of smell, both inside and outside the home.

The exhibition also explores the theme of new aromas from far-off lands. Thanks to extensive overseas trade, new tastes and smells from other parts of the world were increasingly within reach and wildly popular. The average Dutch citizen had no idea of the darker side of this trade: exploitation, oppression and violence often preceded the moment they entered the shop to purchase these new delights.

Werk Oudezijdsvoorburgwal
Jan van der Heyden, View of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, c.1670. Panel, 41.4 x 52.3 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague

Exhibition preview

In the video below, the exhibition concept is explained in more depth and the role of scent in 17th-century artworks is explored. Watch to gain a better idea of what lies in store in the exhibition.

Made possible by

This exhibition was developed and made by the Mauritshuis, in collaboration with the following individuals and parties: our main partners NN Group and VriendenLoterij as well as Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, VM, Zabawas, Gravin van Bylandt Stichting, International Flavors and Fragrances.