Picturing Scent The Tale of a Beached Whale
What can visual art teach us about scent, stench, and the mysterious substance known as ambergris? Lizzie Marx follows a “whale-trail” across history to discover the olfactory paradoxes of the Dutch Golden Age.
July 21, 2021
During the seventeenth century, whales, of various species and sizes, were washed up on the shores of the Netherlands. Sometimes the creatures were already seized by decay; other times, they were beached alive, bellowing deafening groans while being crushed by the sheer weight of their own bodies. While they decomposed, gases would build up, sometimes culminating in a fetid explosion. If the tide did not sweep away the whale, a long and arduous process followed, in order to break down the mass and clear away the site.
The colossal creatures attracted onlookers who were fascinated by the spectacle, and among the throng were artists, who, armed with drawing requisites, recorded what they saw, and what they smelled.1 Jan Saenredam depicted a sperm whale that beached on December 19, 1601. The whale is stranded on its side, showing its underbelly to the coast. Hordes of visitors congregate around the swollen cadaver and clamber over its body to inspect it. The descriptive border further details the state of the whale, picturing its gaping mouth on the left, and its back on the right, which has been split open, pouring out tresses of entrails. Positioned near the whale’s mouth, Saenredam pictures himself recording the cadaver on a sheet of paper flapping in the coastal winds. At the scene’s centre is Count Ernest Casimir of Nassau-Dietz, military leader and nephew of the stadholder Prince Maurice of Nassau. In his left hand is a lavish tasselled handkerchief, elevated to his nose to block out the stench.
Its formlessness, its opening running deep into its innards,
And its mouth, from which fluid and great quantities of blood flow.2
The whale was, according to Schrevelius, a monster; not only for its terrifying stature, but because it was believed to be an omen. Monsters were by definition the messengers of future catastrophes, as monstrum, monster in Latin, meant both a monster, in the modern sense, and a portent.3 The whale’s warnings manifested within days of its arrival, when there was a solar eclipse on December 24, 1601. It was followed by an earthquake nine days later, and by a lunar eclipse on June 4, 1602. The ominous events play out in the print’s heavy border.
In 1618, the engraving was reworked, to illustrate another calamity that struck the Dutch Republic after the whale’s arrival. Beneath the top border, emerging from the clouds, is Death, a skeletal figure whose arrows shoot down a winged woman. The shield of three crosses identifies her as the Maid of Amsterdam. Death presided over the city in 1601–02 during an outbreak of plague, and the print suggests that the sperm whale’s arrival was its prophet.
Early Modern medical theory asserted that disease spread through the odours emitted from stagnating and foul matter. In the wake of another outbreak in the Dutch Republic between 1667–1669, the German polymath Athanasius Kircher’s volume about the plague, Scrutinium Physico-Medicum Contagiosae Luis, Quae Pestis Dicitur, was translated into Dutch from Latin. He reported that the causes of the plague included cadavers, foul air, and rotting whales washed up on the shores.4 Perhaps the invisible pestilential emissions from the whale could stretch further than the coast, and insidiously seep into the cities. The Count’s handkerchief takes on a new, ominous layer of significance in the second version of the print. Indeed, he holds his handkerchief against the awful smells of decay, but also as protection from the pestilential fumes.
While the plague descended on Amsterdam, there lay an olfactory paradox deep within the whale’s bowels stranded at Beverwijk. When undigested squid beaks irritate the intestines of a sperm whale, it can produce an exceptionally fragrant substance, known as ambergris. The mass can grow over years until the sperm whale either expels it, or it ruptures the intestine, eventually breaking free from the body. The substance gradually rises to the ocean’s surface, and with exposure to salt water and sunlight, its olfactory composition changes from an abhorrent faecal stink, to the beautifully formed, alluring fragrance of ambergris.5 The grey mass of ambergris may spend years at sea before it is washed up on land, where it becomes perfectly camouflaged on a stone beach.
In Early Modern Europe, the source of ambergris remained an enigma. Ambergris might have been food for whales, or it was considered to have come from an underwater island, or from the mud of mountains; or it was honeycomb that had fallen from rocks by the sea, or the aromatic excrement of East Indian birds, whose diet of fragrant fruit and insects was believed to give the ambergris dung its delightful smell.6 The Wittenberg scientist Justus Fidus Klobius was partial to the avian theory, and his volume dedicated to ambergris illustrates four of the sea birds occupying a rocky landscape among the buzz of insects. A kneeling man harvests the excrement, and near the sea, another ambergris gatherer searches for further deposits. No less than eighteen hypotheses for the origins of ambergris are listed in Klobius’ volume, all of which remained inconclusive for more than a century.7
Great fortune came to those who discovered ambergris. Georg Eberhard Rumphius, a botanist working for the Dutch East India Company (VOC), describes encountering an unimaginably large piece in his book on natural history. Towering at nearly six feet, the lump was acquired by the Amsterdam chamber of the VOC in 1693 from the King of Tidore (the Moluccas), fetching an estimated 116,400 gilders, roughly €1.13 million today.8 The accompanying illustrations make no allusions to its potent fragrance, but they keenly observe the ambergris’ craggy, marbled, sinuous topography.
Ambergris was often acquired out of a desire to fragrance and flavour. It graced the breakfast table of Charles II, King of England, where it was scattered on scrambled eggs up until his death in 1685, when the potency of the seasoning masked the suspect poison that allegedly killed him. Half an ounce of finely grated ambergris constitutes the Dutch recipe for Amber-Podding, a hedonistic potpourri of lard, almonds, sugar, white bread, musk (a fragrant secretion from the musk deer), and orange blossom water, cooked with the ambergris in pig’s intestine.9 In addition to flavouring food, the substance impregnated leather goods, to sweeten the foul residues from the tanning process. In Saenredam’s scene, the visitors who spectated the beached sperm whale at Beverwijk are warmed by leather gloves and fur muffs, which probably lingered with the scent of ambergris. Standing before the beached whale, the visitors come face-to-face with their decomposing perfumer.
The potency of ambergris was thought to make it resistant to maladies. Early Modern medical theory asserted that while malodorous matter could harbour disease, fragrant substances could protect the body. Ambergris is included in incense recipes to fumigate the home, and added to decoctions of sweet waters, to rid the body of pestilence. One of the most beguiling pieces of plague protection is the pomander, a pendant that held fragrance. The name comes from the Latin pomum ambrae, apple of ambergris, as a primary component in the pomander’s composition was the sperm whale’s perfume. Various scented balms were once stored in the six compartments of this luxurious silver segmented pomander. Ambergris probably mingled with cinnamon, rosemary, cloves, and other aromatics. Some pomander recipes called for amber, the fossilised tree resin that was distinct from ambergris, but whose fragrance was also associated with warding off disease.10 To the Early Modern nose, ambergris was one of the defining scents of plague protection. The rotting cadaver in Saenredam’s print illustrated the source of Amsterdam’s troubles, and, paradoxically, deep within its bowels, where fragrant ambergris dwelled, was its solution.
Some decades after the beached whale foretold the fate of Amsterdam, visitors in the city came to admire the latest works by Rembrandt van Rijn in his studio. As Rembrandt’s biographer Arnold Houbraken recounts, when visitors edged closer to the paintings, the artist pulled them away, saying, “The smell of the paint would irritate you”.11 Oil paint combines pulverised pigments with linseed oil, a sharp-smelling binding medium which is extracted from pressed flax seeds. The compound produces a wonderfully supple and jewel-like paint that can achieve fine details and varying textures. In Rembrandt’s self-portrait, he does not use oil paint sparingly, but practically sculpts with it. He smears out flesh-coloured oils to construct his nose, and in order to evoke the folds of his headpiece, he scrapes out lines of blue and yellow paint revealing the dark ground beneath. In the studio, the odour of linseed oil must have been a disruptive force, and Rembrandt used it to persuade his visitors to distance themselves from the painting, to best behold the rough, impasto slicks of paint. The painting has retained most of its lustre, but the odour, in time, has faded.
To truly triumph over the odour of paint, it was believed that an artist needed to create works that captivated the viewer, so much so that the studio’s astringent atmosphere was rendered imperceptible. Almost twenty years before Houbraken wrote about Rembrandt’s studio, the artist and critic Roger de Piles remarked that a poor work would, “smell always of the Pallet”.12 If a work of art did not do enough to stimulate the viewer’s imagination, the scents of reality would creep in, and the painting was reduced to some smeared oils on a flat surface. But perhaps De Piles’ aphorism came with exceptions. An encounter with a still life of rotting fruit may not have drawn the viewer’s attention back to the studio. Rather, through the odour of glistening oil, their imagination could be roused, and the sharp scent of rot brought to life.
An abundance of scents could be discerned in paintings. With microscopic precision, artists depicted the materiality of the Dutch Republic’s exhaustive inventory. Allusions to odours can be seen through landscapes, grand history paintings, scenes capturing daily life, and portraits. They are diffused from little coal fires and bubbling pots, humorously excreted, and exuded from stagnating matter. Scattered among artworks is the paraphernalia devoted to fragrance: clay pipes, snuff boxes, pomanders, chatelaines, sweet bags, nutmeg graters, incense burners, teapots, apothecary jars, fans, gloves, and illustrious fragranced centrepieces. In Saenredam’s print, it was the whale’s spilling guts and the Count’s handkerchief that inferred an odorous atmosphere. Through recording the visual in works of art, the olfactory was made known, and the viewer’s imagination was stirred.
The whale trail concludes at the Town Hall of Amsterdam, rendered precisely by Pieter Saenredam, whose father Jan had witnessed the monstrous whale at Beverwijk more than half a century earlier. Although the Town Hall had burned down years ago (Rembrandt drew its smouldering ruins), Saenredam painted the scene from memory, using some of his earlier sketches to detail the pastel structures with tufts of weeds, crumbling stonework, and idly swaying shutters, as well as little figures wandering down the street and resting beneath the arcade. It is on the arcade of the vierschaar, the High Court of Justice, that a thick bowed whale rib can be seen shackled above the left arch. The source of the rib is unknown, however it was already fastened to the façade when Jan Saenredam beheld the stranded sperm whale in 1601.13 Even before the whale landed at Beverwijck, the monsters had made an impression on Amsterdam.
Whale bones could often be found prominently displayed on public buildings. In 1577 the tail and lower jawbone from a stranding of sperm whales were hung in the hall of the High Court of Holland in The Hague, as an eternal memorial.14 And when the merchant Jan Huyghen van Linschoten returned from his voyage to Nova Zembla in 1596, he presented a whale’s jawbone to the City Hall of Haarlem, to display and commemorate the curiosity.15 While the whales had gone through a lengthy process to be stripped of their former selves, their bodily presence could remain through residual visceral odours. The skeleton of a whale that landed in Livorno in 1549 was displayed in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. However it was not long before the display had to be dismantled. Within the bones, the marrow had advanced its decay, and it exuded an intolerable stench.16 Whalers in the seventeenth century attempted to moderate the smell by drilling holes in the bones to drain it of fluids, but with little success.
How the whale rib must have roused the imagination, to dwell on the beast that swallowed Jonah, to marvel over the vastness of God’s creation, or to conceive of the thrashing creatures that the whalers harpooned in the Northern settlement of Spitsbergen. So too might it have conjured up stories of the strandings on Dutch shores. Were the bone at the Town Hall to emit the scent of decomposition — for sources withhold the details — the mind’s eye of the beholder could restore flesh to the whale, and drift in thought to the beach where its counterparts decomposed.
Lizzie Marx is a History of Art PhD Candidate at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, where she explores the visualization of smell and its meanings in seventeenth-century Dutch art. In 2018–2019 she was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Rijksmuseum, and she is the Research and Exhibition Assistant of Fleeting – Scents in Colour, an exhibition at the Mauritshuis on smell in seventeenth-century art, and co-author of the exhibition publication.