While sixteenth century depictions of the Five Senses were traditionally visualized as allegorical female figures, accompanied by an established set of attributes, by the seventeenth century painters had increasingly begun to experiment with the ways in which they could be represented. In the Netherlands, at least, this increasingly saw artists formulating series of the Senses within the visual language of genre painting.
Petrus Staverenus is documented as a copper engraver in The Hague, where he also worked painting portraits, still-lifes and genre subjects between 1634 and 1654. His series of the Five Senses is comprised of small-scale tronies (or head studies) of figures, dressed in contemporary costume, engaged in commonplace activities. The exaggerated physiognomies of the figures are characteristic of the painter’s work and here can be seen to continue the tradition of capturing emotions and facial expressions, exemplified in the work of painters like Adriaen Brouwer, whose The Bitter Draft (Frankfurt-am-Main, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie) may well have represented Taste in a now lost series of the Five Senses. By placing the Senses into a contemporary context, painters and viewers were able to imbue their depictions with moralistic judgement or praise. It is, for example, tempting to view Staverenus’ Sense of Smell as a warning against smoking, something traditionally regarded in the seventeenth century as the reserve of the working classes and seen as a sign of social deviance. Other panels in the series, however, defy this kind of interpretation and instead the panels may simply represent the artist’s interest in depicting characterful faces on an intimately small and detailed scale.
Between 1670 and 1690, the present series was copied in mezzotint by the Dutch engraver Abraham Blooteling (1634-1690), and the prints appear to have been widely popular. Indeed, the print after Sight was included in two trompe-l’oeils by Edwaert Collier dated 1704 and 1706, painted when the artist was living and working in Leiden (Schwerin, Staatliches Museum; and Private collection, Sotheby’s, London, 18 October 1995, lot 91). By the end of the eighteenth century, they were also known in London, where the publisher Carington Bowles used Hearing in a satirical print depicting a sailor paying for a bowl of punch.