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.

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