Art History Mysteries: Fashion in The Five Senses

Greetings, friends! We are back today with another foray into how art history and fashion history converge. Recently, on our Instagram account, we shared a cheeky little post featuring the painting Hearing: The Five Senses by Henri Guillaume Schlesinger. This example of genre painting is so lively and fun, that we just had to share it with everyone. While lots of you could relate to what was going on in this painting vis-á-vis blowing an instrument in a friend or sister’s ear, we also got questions about the attire worn by the two ladies in the painting. Of course, we must go down this irresistible art history rabbit hole.

The Five Senses displayed together in 1865, in Paris.

Now, Hearing: The Five Senses is actually just one piece of a five-part series of paintings. Schlesinger painted them in the mid-19th century, and they were all acquired at the 1865 Paris Salon by Emperor Napoleon III. It seems that all five pieces are now in private collections, and really, there isn’t very much easily accessible information out there on the paintings themselves, or the artist (if anyone out there is a Schlesinger expert, please do get in touch). So, what can we glean about them just from a cursory examination?

Touch: The Five Senses is a bit of an outlier from the other four paintings in the series when it comes to fashion. You costumers out there will probably take a look at it and immediately notice the clothing inspired by the fashions of the latter half of the 18th century. You can see the shapes and pieces of 18th c. gowns reflected in the attire sworn by these two ladies, and in the trimmings as well. The gown worn by the figure on the right resembles robe á la française, and the figure on the left is wearing a rococo revival mid-19th c evening gown bodice-and-skirt situation. I don’t know about you, but I find examining how different textiles are painted fascinating. Isn’t it amazing how the artist was able to replicate a flatter-sheen texture with the yellow gown worn by the figure on the right, and a higher-sheen texture with the figure on the left? The details of the seams and the wrinkling in the ivory silk gown are also remarkable. If you look behind the figures, the setting of the painting is a room with distinctively rococo details. Ergo, we can deduce that this one painting is pretty solidly 18th-century inspired (with lots of artistic liberty taken, of course).

The other four paintings in this series have quite a different aesthetic. The color palettes are much darker and more robust (more reds, blacks and blues, for example), and the clothing is quite different as well. Let’s take a look at Taste, for example:

Did anyone else check out the ice cream first? It looks really delicious. It looks like maybe it’s vanilla, or some sort of fruit flavor, with some strawberry or raspberry sauce? Not to mention the Pirouline-looking waffle cone cookie confection as well…

Alright, back to the fashion part. There’s a lot going on in this painting. As previously mentioned, the fashion is quite different from Touch; their hair is styled differently, and these ladies aren’t dressed in anything robe a l’anglaise inspired, that’s for certain. Fabulous fabric depictions are present in Taste too, though now we get a peachy pink silk skirt and a reflective blue-and-bronzy silk skirt. There are examples found in Schleisinger’s other works that are inspired by Spanish and Italian 19th century fashion, which can definitely be found in Taste, particularly Spanish fashion. Victorian fashion enthusiasts may notice that both ladies are wearing bolero-style jackets, similar to the military-inspired Zouave jackets popular in the 1850s and 1860s. These jackets were usually festooned with trim or embroidery of some kind. In the painting above, the lady on the left has a rich red velvet jacket, with black braided trim around the shoulders and sleeves, and some gold trim on the cuffs. The lady on the right is wearing a jacket totally covered with sparkly jewels, metallic embroidery, and lots of ball fringe. This sort of jacket is often called a traje de luces, or a bullfighter’s jacket (the name traje de luces is used for actual bullfighter’s jackets and for jackets inspired by them).

Late 19th c. men’s traditional traje de luces suit, by designer J. Uriarte. From the collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

Zouave-style jacket from an 1867 afternoon day dress, from the Museum at FIT.

Portrait of Mlle. L.L. (Young Lady in a Red Jacket. February 1864), by James Tissot. From the collection at the Museé d’Orsay, Paris.

These sorts of highly decorated jackets are distinctive of 19th century Spanish Goyesco fashions, which are distinguished by colorful and decorative attire and certain fashion pieces (more on this in a bit). Goyesco comes from Francisco de Goya, the Spanish royal artist from the court of King Charles IV. Nowadays, Goyesco is used to refer to traditional styles of Spanish dress in a wide variety of different capacities.

This Goyesco style children’s ensemble from the Museo del Traje in Madrid was worn by Infanta Isabel de Borbón, a.k.a Infanta Isabel of Spain, when she was about 11 to 12 years old. If you compare this ensemble with the ladies in The Five Senses paintings, you can find lots of commonalities; the full skirts and petticoats, lots of embroidery and trim, vests, bolero jackets with epaulette-inspired shoulders, a wide sash tied around the waist, etc.

In Sight, we see another set of jackets, this time a blue velvet one and an all-black one with lots of ball fringe, plus a vest and striped sash just like the ones seen in Taste. This black jacket and red head covering are going to be seen again in subsequent paintings from the series. Also, the skirt worn by the lady on the right has the same textural qualities as the darker skirt in Taste, only with slightly different coloring.

In Smell, we see another black jacket just like the one in Sight, only this time, it is the blonde lady donning it. She is also wearing a mantilla style lace veil, and holding up a hanky, presumably to help block the smell of the cigarillo being smoked by her companion. Oh, and is that a vinaigrette she’s holding, also to help ward off the smell?

Check out the hat donned by the primary figure in the painting- it’s got the same coloring and trim as the jacket.We also see a richly embroidered teal skirt, and a splendid red striped shawl.

Now back to Hearing. It’s likely that the models in Hearing, Sight, and Smell are the same two people, or at least, they were inspired by the same two people. Again we see the same celadon vest with ball trim, this time accompanied by a red and gold traje de luces inspired bolero jacket and ivory silk skirt. The musician on the left dons a dark blue velvet jacket, dark teal skirt, and a striped sash around the waist- and the same red head covering from Sight. If you look ever so closely, you can see the trim from her vest as well. Anyone who has ever had siblings can probably relate to what’s going on here…or anyone who learned to play the recorder in 4th grade!

This series of paintings certainly has enough going on to get one thinking. Why are the figures dressed so differently in Touch than in the rest of the series? Why are the same figures shown in Sight, Touch and Hearing, but different ladies are in Taste and Touch? Is there an art historian out there who can lend us more insight? In any case, the entire series is definitely memorable!


  • Mary Ondrejka

    April 5, 2024 at 2:59 AM

    Thank you for this wonderful peek into some extraordinary artwork depicting exquisite detailing of clothing worn in the period of these paintings.

    It looks like these paintings are all the same size and a good size to view in clear detail the embellishments of the boleros, waist and head scarves and skirts as well as the hat. At height: 115.5 cm (45.4 in); width: 89.5 cm (35.2 in) this provides ample ability to observe all!

    Apparently Napoleon’s wife, Empress Eugenia purchased these paintings and since she was from Granada, Spain, I can see why she fell in love with the beauty of the depiction of women wearing clothing she was quite familiar with from her own country and culture. It was with her marriage to Napoleon III that she became Empress Consort of the French. She was formally educated in Paris so she had a first-hand look at the Parisian fashions of the day. She died at the age of 94 in 1920 in Madrid, Spain.

    I wonder how these paintings became split up, since they would be wonderful to be seen all in one place as they really are a set. Are they in five private households or does someone have more than one? What a pity. I believe art should be seen my all, but that is not the case with money and its ability to secure art privately. When one has the means, one can hang beautiful works of art on their private walls for only themselves and their family and friends may see.

    • American Duchess

      April 10, 2024 at 12:16 PM

      Oh what a great point about Empress Eugenia! It was quite difficult to find information about where they paintings are now, and if they are together. It would indeed be fantastic if they could be displayed all together once again in a place where one could travel to see them, they are such interesting and evocative paintings.

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