Mauritshuis Fleeting – Scents in Colour

An exhibition of romantic perfumes and foul odours in the 17th century

The 17th century saw Mauritshuis as a residence and hotel for VIP guests. This beautiful building is conveniently situated in the city centre of The Hague. Now Mauritshuis houses the celebrated museum for 17th and 18th century works of art. Its collections comprise around 800 paintings and sketches including the instantly recognisable Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt, and the beautiful Goldfinch by Fabritius.

scentSmells brought to life

The exhibition Fleeting – Scents in Colour offers the fragrance of flowers and perfumes; malodourous canals and spices are experienced alongside the disappearing aromas of the bleaching fields with their vistas of whitening cloth. But how are these smells brought to life?  In this unique exhibition at the Mauritshuis there will be real scents in coronavirus-proof scent dispensers. This will enable visitors to appreciate the different smells portrayed in the paintings.

The exhibition of almost 50 paintings, drawings and objects conjures a rich tapestry of vision and smell. In Abraham Mignon’s Still Life of Flowers and Fruit from 1670, there are obvious references to scent in its sweetest form. Pieter de Hooch’s depiction of a home with two women standing by an open linen cupboard gives the impression of a freshly cleaned house and crisp laundered sheets.

The intense aroma of eastern spices in Willem van Mieris’s grocer’s shop from 1717 reminds us of the prominent Dutch spice trade. These jars of exotic nuts, seeds and dried leaves would have made a striking impression on those who visited, and a painting of such goods would have immediately excited a strong olfactory memory.

The stench of a canal and a privy

But the 17th century offered plenty of opportunities to encounter less pleasant smells. Outside the city walls there were gallows, and inside the city there were whale oil refineries and tanneries with all their distasteful smells, along with the ever-present stink of the canals. The painting View of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam by Jan van der Heyden shows a public toilet that emptied directly into the canal; a street cleaner is sweeping the horse manure into piles. These show the pungent reality of life for the majority of the population, and we can now smell that reality for ourselves.

The exhibition Fleeting – Scents in Colour invites visitors to ‘smell art’ from a different perspective via the hygienic scent dispensers. It enables us to appreciate paintings with an added dimension. Fascinating and multisensorily memorable.


Visit Mauritshuis here for museum opening times