“How can you make a drawing look appetizing?” I muttered under my breath as I pushed the pencil across the white paper. I was trying to draw my first still life of two apples and a pear. “It should look good enough to eat. Also, pay attention to the light and shadows,” the teacher kept reminding us. If I were to compile the images that spell frustration to me, a scene of my 8 year old self sitting in my art class in front of two apples and a pear is one of them. How can one capture the taste, the scent, the emotion in a painting? Years later, as I started thinking more about how to capture a sensation in a drop of perfumed liquid, I began to search for clues in art.
I spent a lot of time at the Art Institute of Chicago during my student days. It has free visiting hours on certain days, and I still think of it as my favorite museum, mostly because it feels very familiar. During my visit over Christmas, I wanted to take photos of a few favorite paintings, but instead I started snapping details that caught my eye–an angel’s brocaded skirt, a hand holding a book, a glistening string of pearls on a white neck.
When I suddenly noticed the shy whiteness of lily of the valley near Santa Margareta’s cloak (painting 1), I could almost smell Diorissimo around me. So I kept taking photos of elements that conveyed a smell, a taste or a tactile sensation to me. I tried playing the game of assigning a perfume to each painting, but I was with my husband, whose fragrance knowledge is still limited, despite years of being my captive audience. He told me that I should play this game with you and let him enjoy the paintings in peace.
So feel free to join my husband in just looking at the images, but if you want to play along, tell me what perfumes these paintings suggest to you.
2) The skin of the fruit is so glistening that I want to reach for that juicy plum in the center of the bowl. To be honest, when I look at this painting, I think not of a perfume, but what I would make out of these ingredients: asparagus and sweet pea risotto, gooseberry fool, cherry tart, plum and currant sorbet…
3) I love Dutch still life paintings for their rich textures. The galettes on the right look opaque and crisp, the raisins are hard and wrinkly, the candy is grainy and crunchy. The little round sweetmeats look like candied anise, and I can’t help but think about a licorice perfume pervading the whole tableau. Lolita Lempicka, perhaps?
4) I love this jasmine and pear still life. When I look at it, I think of Christian Dior Diorama, where the juicy ripeness of fruit blends perfectly into the sensual ripeness of jasmine.
5) Tobacco and bread crumbs, smoky and savory. Santa Maria Novella Nostalgia feels appropriately rustic for the setting.
6) Another voluptuous Dutch still life that’s such a feast for the eye. An exuberant fruity blend like Parfums DelRae Emotionnelle would capture it well for me.
7) Bread, wine, sausages… I can just imagine someone’s lunch interrupted. Although I know that the setting was probably carefully arranged to get the composition just so, I still love the depiction of such simple, everyday objects. I can almost taste the tannic sweetness of wine and smoky meat as I look at this painting.
8 ) A German vision of Middle Eastern splendor. When I smell perfumes like Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady or L’Artisan Traversée du Bosphore, their self-conscious exoticism both delights and humors me. It is the same with this painting, which would be an appropriate illustration for a sultry fragrance like Amouage Lyric Woman with its rose, frankincense and musk notes.
9) The other day my friend Lucy, who writes a wonderful blog, IndiePerfumes, explained to me the intricate process of painting these Mughal era miniatures–the use of delicate brushes, complex coloring and layering of effects. The stunning collection of 36 paintings from the Jaipur Ragamala set, which is owned by the Art Institute, is a fascinating example how medieval Indian art was linked to music, poetry and sensory references. Each of these illustrations was used to depict a musical melody, raga. Here, a lady is awaiting her lover and is biding her time by making a flower garland for him. I imagine the scents of jasmine, the perfume of musk on her skin, and I think about By Kilian Love and Tears, which is all about Indian jasmine and ylang-ylang.
10) Another illustration, this time for a more joyful song: a lady is joined by her lover, to whom she is offering paan, a betel leaf wrapped around various spices and aromatics. Would it smell like Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque, perhaps, a blend of rose, tobacco, honey, vanilla and tonka bean? The exuberant, festive mood of this scene also makes me think of Annick Goutal Songes, a heady, intoxicating perfume. That’s what love makes one feel, doesn’t it?
Photography by Bois de Jasmin, all rights reserved.