In Art, Blackness Provides a Scent of the Exotic

Image of the Week: A Spanish painting of a black man symbolizing the sense of smell hints at an early fascination with the “exotic” people of African descent.

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IOW-Allegory of Smell.17th c.Spanish.3.4mb
Spanish, Allegory of the Sense of Smell, first half of 17th century. Oil on canvas, 71.7 by 96.5 cm.

Menil Collection, Houston

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Through the simple pairing of a half-length figure with a large vase of flowers, a fertile discourse is opened on the bounty of nature and its reception by the human faculties. The choice of a young black man as the protagonist in this aesthetic colloquy raises questions of its own. Ultimately, the youth exemplifies the important, if not always acknowledged, role of people of African descent in the emerging culture of the modern world.

The painting was created during the early-Baroque period, an age of great cultural innovation characterized by boldly contrasting expressive effects. The extreme chiaroscuro, or light-dark contrast, employed here imparts a new degree of drama and realism to the subject.

On the left side of the painting, a young black man stands before a diagonally lit wall. An elaborately modeled flower vase, decorated with numerous masks of human and animal faces, stands on a low table at the right. Filled with just-cut carnations, it serves as an artificially animated counterpart to the living form of the black youth. With his direct gaze, the young man invites us to savor, if only vicariously, the clovelike fragrance of the blossom he is smelling.

The authorship of the painting has long been debated, but it now seems most reasonably to be the work of a Spanish artist, perhaps active in the Mediterranean seaport city of Valencia. Stylistic similarities can, in fact, be found between this painting and works by the versatile local artist Tomás Hiepes.

The painting clearly has a portraitlike quality, yet the intention of the artist goes beyond a concern with personal commemoration to engage in an elevated commentary on the role of the senses as arbiters of the physical environment. The black youth serves as the embodiment of the sense of smell, communicating to the viewer the vicarious enjoyment of the blossom he has just picked. The painting, one of a presumed series representing the five senses, once would have been accompanied by four other canvases illustrating comparable treatments of sight, hearing, touch and taste. It would be interesting to know if black figures personified the other senses in the series, too.

The pictorial characterization of the five senses had engaged artists as a perennial theme for at least a century before this painting was made. In turn, scholars used these visual conceits to produce an early-modern anthology of sacred and profane themes in emblematic form.

As with the other senses, the iconography of smell underwent a major renovation with the publication of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia in 1593. Previously imagined as a classically draped female, the sense of smell, or odorato, was allegorized by Ripa as a youth dressed in green, holding a vase in one hand and flowers in the other. The conception of the organ of smell as the splendidly dressed young man in this painting seems to have been derived from Ripa’s example, only converted to another race and transposed to the realm of everyday life.

There was, in fact, no compelling reason for evoking the sense of smell as a black person as far as the theme itself was concerned. He does quite harmoniously fit, though, within the broader framework of the early-modern fascination with the exotic, represented by the prodigious variety of nature. Showing a black servant in a luxurious setting like a garden, often holding flowers, was a common trope among painters of this period. This motif, in turn, may have suggested a more specific adaptation to the theme of the senses.

If he is considered to be a real person, the young man in the painting lived under circumstances amply documented in the city archives of Valencia. Most likely he was not enslaved, owing to an interesting conjunction of circumstances. Although it once had a population of at least 1,000 black slaves, Valencia saw a decline in their numbers because of the redirection of the slave trade away from the Mediterranean toward the New World. Also, for a time during the late 16th century, most slaves in the city were actually not black but, rather, Muslims captured in battle. In any case, the great expense of acquiring and maintaining slaves eventually occasioned a general shift to the employment of free people to perform the same tasks.

Some indication of the young man’s station in life is provided by his dress. He wears an elaborately cut doublet and wide breeches, the formal male clothing of the prosperous upper middle class and nobility. In this case, such attire functions as livery—that is, clothing worn by those in service to a prominent family. It is possible that the young man in the picture actually plays two parts here: both his customary role as a household servant and the actual model for a work commissioned by his employer. If so, the painting depicting the sense of smell and its companion pieces may have hung in close proximity to the young man’s daily activities, reflecting both his real and idealized selves in the contemporary ambient of Valencia.

The youth with carnations may have resided in the Bordellet dels Negres, the modestly sized black quarter of the city. He may also have been enrolled in the local black religious confraternity of the Holy Virgin Mary of Mercy. This important institution had been founded in 1472 both as a place of spiritual devotion and as a kind of mutual-aid society for the local black population.

The young man may have been a manumitted slave, a condition that did not necessarily stand in the way of impressive social and professional advancement. Documents record former slaves in Valencia who went on to become priests, artists and master perfumers. Each lived as legally enfranchised members of the city, enjoying the basic rights and privileges granted to men of property or those practicing skilled occupations. Certain restrictions did apply, however, imposed by the age-old notion of “blood purity.” According to these statutes, free blacks could not join professional organizations such as guilds, confraternities other than those reserved for them or the military orders.

Paradoxically, Europe during this period was both the organizational center of slavery as well as the cradle of intellectual and moral speculation about the essential qualities of human nature. From a tentative degree of inclusion eventually grew the principle of universal liberty. This process was apparently already under way in Valencia during the black youth’s lifetime. As the 17th century came to a close, the local archives contain fewer and fewer references to slaves, either still in bondage or already freed. The descendants of the black youth would ultimately enjoy a sanctioned state of freedom, to begin a new struggle for genuine acceptance and equal treatment by a society that had gained so much from their presence.  

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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