Rombouts’ Allegory of the Five Senses | MSK Gent
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Rombouts’ Allegory of the Five Senses

Theodoor Rombouts, 'Allegory of the Five Senses', 1632
Theodoor Rombouts, 'Allegory of the Five Senses', 1632, MSK Ghent ©, photo Cedric Verhelst

On 21 January 2023, the MSK opened the first-ever monographic exhibition focusing on the work of Theodoor Rombouts (1597-1637). The museum has a very special connection with this Antwerp artist: in 1860, his work Allegory of the Five Senses was its very first purchase of an Old Masters painting. Even today it remains a firm favourite among visitors. Two other works by Rombouts are also in the MSK collection: Allegory of the Second Bench of Aldermen of Gedele (1627-28) and his largest painting, The Tooth Puller (1628). The latter, painted in a typically Caravaggist style and intended as a warning against quackery, has been restored for the occasion of this exhibition.

Rombouts enjoyed a solid reputation in the art circles of Antwerp. After studying with Abraham Janssen (ca. 1575-1632), he travelled to Italy in the early 17th century, finding inspiration there in the work of the revolutionary painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) and his most important successor, Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622). On his return to Antwerp, Rombouts developed an entirely unique artistic identity that combined Northern and Southern European influences. His monumentally large genre paintings earned him success as a Caravaggist painter of the human figure in particular. But as much as his work was admired during his lifetime, just as quickly was his artistic legacy forgotten after his death. This exhibition aims to shine a new light on Rombouts’ personality as an artist, and to open up fresh perspectives on his work.

The Allegory of the Five Senses is undoubtedly the greatest showcase for Rombouts’ virtuosity. He was commissioned to paint it in 1632 by his patron, the bishop Antoon Triest (1577-1657), and it was sure to have been a highlight of the bishop’s enormous collection of art. In the scene, one of the few allegorical works in Rombouts’ oeuvre, five rather common-looking male figures represent the five senses. On the left, an older man with a pince-nez and a mirror is sight; a musician playing a theorbo, gaze turned upwards, is hearing. The central figure is a blind man representing touch, his hands on a piece of antique sculpture. The man with the half-exposed torso, holding a glass of wine in one hand and a carafe in the other, is taste, while the standing figure on the right, with his pipe and bunch of garlic, is clearly scent.

The 16th century was a period of increased interest in sensory perception. The five senses were  thought to serve as conduits between the human soul and physical world, and they were therefore subjects of fascination. However, they were not intended solely as a means for experiencing sensual pleasure: the Christian mores of the time dictated that they must be used in the service of God, as  tools for encouraging morality and right thinking. The first group of prints on the subject of the five senses to appear in the Southern Netherlands was published in 1561, based on a design by Antwerp painter Frans Floris (ca. 1515/20-1570). In these works, the senses appeared as graceful female figures surrounded by their specific attributes. Around 1600 a more pseudo-realistic approach to allegorical scenes took hold; this style featured figures and activities with a more everyday appearance, which were easier for viewers to identify with. This was the style that Rombouts preferred.

Antoon Triest is known to have been an aficionado of Caravaggism. Even so, Allegory of the Five Senses is not an outspoken example of this, but rather a work that features a harmonious combination of both Caravaggist and traditional Southern Netherlandish influences. It is also an expression of Rombouts’ appreciation for the baroque painting style of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), who dominated the market at the time. In Allegory of the Five Senses, Rombouts embraced neither the chiaroscuro nor the sense of drama that were such typical features of Caravaggism. Instead, he exchanged the usually somber Caravaggist atmosphere by creating depth in his spaces. The tree, the architecture and the sky emit a gentle glowing radiance, and recall the backdrops that Van Dyck created for his group portraits. Rombouts’ figures were life-sized and down to earth, and his naturalistic way of painting them was indeed a nod to Caravaggism. He arranged them around a table covered by an oriental rug, the colours of their garments pale and clear, mirroring those fashionable in Antwerp at the time.

The figures’ attributes are beautifully rendered, lending a richness to the painting in terms of both beauty and symbolism. Not only does each refer to the sense it represents, but all are bursting with moralising messages. The musical instruments and sheet music that appear in both Northern and Southern Netherlandish paintings recall the transitory nature of life, as does the smoking pipe. The wine in the hand of leopard-clad Bacchus, as well as the  mirror, are allusions to the unreliable nature of our sensory perceptions. The luminously painted sculptures are striking. Two of them have been identified: they are miniature versions of the Torso Belvédère (Palazzo del Apostolico Vaticano) and the heads of  the Niobids (Museo Nazionale Romano - Museo delle Terme). It is certainly possible that Rombouts saw and admired these antique sculptures during his time in Rome, but just as plausible that he did so closer to home, for instance in Rubens’ drawing of the famous Roman torso. Whatever the case may be, the Allegory is certainly a painting that would have inspired much discussion among its 17th-century viewers on both sensory and intellectual topics.

You can see the painting for yourself during the exhibition, alongside other works from Rombouts’ own fascinating oeuvre and in dialogue with works by other major artists of his time, including Bartolomeo Manfredi, Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632) and Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-1629). Works have been brought to Ghent from private collections, churches and museums in Europe and the US, with some undergoing restoration, with the support of the museum, especially for the occasion of this exhibition.