Painting the Impossible: Touch

Philip Mercier (c 1689-1760), The Sense of Touch (1744-47), oil on canvas, 132.1 x 153.7 cm, The Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

There isn’t really a single sense of touch. Somatic sensation comes in a range of different modalities, such as fine touch, pressure, heat, cold, and of course pain. Of all the senses, it is perhaps the one which we take most for granted, and which is least used in the arts.

Although most sculptures and many paintings need to be touched to benefit from their whole experience, almost every collection of paintings forbids physical contact with the works. Even getting close enough to see the surface texture usually brings security guards rushing in case you’re about to attack the painting and damage it.

A great many paintings are about touch sensation – from the caresses of lovers to the heat and pain of hell – but few if any seem intended to evoke specific sensations of texture, temperature, etc. So my examples this week are drawn largely from allegories and visual essays on specific touch sensations. Several are spectacular and ingenious, but this is a theme which still welcomes innovative approaches.

Artist not known, The Lady and the Unicorn: The Sense of Touch (1484-1500), tapestry, 373 x 358 cm, Musée National du Moyen Âge, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The common ancestor of all European paintings about the five senses is the wonderful tapestry cycle of The Lady and the Unicorn from the end of the fifteenth century. In that cycle, The Sense of Touch shows the common figures of the lady and a unicorn, surrounded by animals and objects amid the mille-fleurs. As in the other tapestries in the cycle, its references are symbolic and now quite obscure.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Touch (Allegory of the Sense of Touch) (1617-18), oil on panel, 64 × 111 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

The next common reference is Jan Brueghel the Elder’s brilliant Allegory of the Sense of Touch painted in 1617-18, with figures by Rubens. Each of the five paintings in this series would have been a masterpiece in its own right, and the group of five must be a unique accomplishment.

However, despite its extraordinary detail, this particular painting strikes me as being the least appropriate of the group as regards its content. Brueghel shows some objects which are strongly associated with touch, and recognises several of the modern sensory modalities, such as heat and fine touch, with the brazier and brushes nearby.

But much of the panel is devoted to a collection of armour, weapons, and their manufacture by gunsmiths and armourers. The many suits of armour on display appear to be equipment which isolates the sense of touch, and I cannot see any relationship between crossbows and touch, for example.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Touch (Allegory of the Sense of Touch) (detail) (1617-18), oil on panel, 64 × 111 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Brueghel also quotes several paintings, which show the apocalypse, the flagellation of Christ, and a cavalry battle, which seem mainly directed at the modality of pain. Below them, next to Rubens’ kissing Cupid and nude, is a collection of surgical instruments which, in the days before anaesthesia, would have been strongly associated with pain.

Johann Daniel Glöckler (?1596-1650), Allegory of the sense of touch (1621), oil on panel, dimensions not known, Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, Wrocław, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Daniel Glöckler is so obscure an artist that I have only just been able to discover his dates, but a couple of his sensory allegories have come to light in recent years. Allegory of the Sense of Touch, from 1621, shows a woman with a hooded hawk or falcon on her right hand, and holding her left hand up in a gesture of touching.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Operation (The Sense of Touch) (1624-25), oil on panel, 21.6 × 17.7 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt’s very early painting of The Operation from 1624-25 shows a barber-surgeon, with his assistant, performing surgery on the side of a man’s head. This is most likely to have been the lancing of a boil or removal of a tumour from the scalp or pinna of the ear. In the absence of any anaesthesia, this invokes the modality of pain, as is shown clearly in the patient’s expression and posture.

Even at the start of his career, Rembrandt’s facture is wonderfully painterly: the cloth wrapped around the neck and upper chest of the patient shows very visible brushstrokes.

José de Ribera (1591–1652), The Sense of Touch (c 1630), oil on canvas, 114 × 88 cm, Norton Simon Foundation, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

José de Ribera painted at least two different series showing the five senses, both around 1630. The Sense of Touch, as with its sister in the Prado, uses a blind man feeling a sculpture, which is both novel and a highly appropriate image.

Jan Miense Molenaer (1609/10–1668), Touch (in series The Five Senses) (1637), oil on panel, 19.5 x 24.2 cm, Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Miense Molenaer’s more ribald and lighthearted series of paintings of The Five Senses includes this work titled Touch (1637). The ragged couple who feature in each of the paintings are possibly engaged in the removal of the husband’s nits (head lice) by beating them, and the man’s head, using his wife’s slipper. Alternatively, the woman is simply striking his head in response to his exploration of touch, as he has his left arm around his wife’s waist, and his right hand is groping up her dress.

Frans Wouters (1612–1659), Allegory of touch (1635-59), oil on panel, 56.5 × 89.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Frans Wouters probably painted a series showing the five senses not long after Brueghel’s. So far, only three have come to light, of which his Allegory of Touch (1635-59) is almost as ambitious and detailed as Brueghel’s. He includes many of the objects referenced by Brueghel, suggesting that Wouters had seen the earlier work, but extends them, with a live cavalry battle and extensive fire in the background.

There is also a small collection of what we might now refer to as ‘creepy-crawlies’, animals which give rise to distinctive somatic sensory experiences, including tortoises, a leech, a scorpion (with its intensely painful sting), and an ant. This suggests some medical knowledge: the sensation of ants crawling over the skin is a long-recognised and distinct symptom, which is given the name formication (hence the origin of some esoteric jokes).

Wouters includes a nursing mother, which shows unusual insight (for a man, at least), and two putti who are wrestling, one apparently kneeing the other in the groin. However, the extremely unpleasant sensation resulting from that is not part of the spectrum of touch sensation, and is more visceral in nature.

Jan van Bijlert (c 1597/8–1671) (workshop), A Courtesan Pulling the Ear of a Cat, Allegory of the Sense of Touch (date not known), oil on canvas, 83.5 x 68 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

A Courtesan Pulling the Ear of a Cat, Allegory of the Sense of Touch was painted in Jan van Bijlert’s workshop around 1625-70, and was clearly composed on the theme of touch. A florid courtesan is playing with her cat, pulling its ear, which results in a grimace of pain and anger, and probably its claws being dug into her hand.

Juan de Arellano (1614–1676) (workshop), An Allegory of the Sense of Touch (date not known), oil on canvas, 106 x 165 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In the same period, probably around 1640-50, An Allegory of the Sense of Touch was painted in Juan de Arellano’s workshop, and tries to be more ingenious. Against a background showing Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden, their original sin being the Christian mythical origin of pain and unpleasant sensation, there is a catalogue of distinctive sensory stimuli. These include snails, massively enlarged tics, a tortoise, and a spider’s web. The woman dominating the composition has a bird perched on her left hand, and the sharp point of an arrow in her right.

Over the next century, sensory cycles and allegories became unpopular, and I can find none comparable to those painted during the seventeenth century.

Philip Mercier (c 1689-1760), The Sense of Touch (1744-47), oil on canvas, 132.1 x 153.7 cm, The Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Philip Mercier’s cycle includes The Sense of Touch from 1744-47, which demonstrates a range of somatic sensory modalities rather well. At the left, a man has just been scratched on the left hand by the cat resting on his partner’s lap, as a child is about to stroke the cat. At the right, another couple are embracing, and about to kiss. Behind them is a fire, which is warming their exposed flesh.

Hans Makart (1840–1884), The Five Senses: Touch (1840-84), media and dimensions not known, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Another century later, Hans Makart’s The Five Senses: Touch (1840-84) is not as rich in its sensory allusions, showing the physical relationship between a mother and her young child.

The sense of touch, in any and all its modalities, has proven difficult to depict in paintings, and I am puzzled that no one seems to have shown the rich range of textures which we encounter in everyday life – the smooth coldness of polished marble, and coarse abrasion of rough-cut granite, for example. Although the optical properties of such surfaces have played a major role in paintings since the Northern Renaissance, their tactile properties seem relatively neglected.

There is still plenty of scope for exploration.