Scented Trail Through The Art Institute of Chicago

1) South German, Triptych of the Virgin and Child with Saints, 1505/15

“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) Louise Moillon, French. Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus, 1630

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) Pieter Claesz, Dutch, Still Life, c. 1625

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) Juan de Zurbarán, Spanish. Pears in a China Bowl (and jasmine), 1645

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) Johann Carl Loth, called Carlotto Bavarese, German. Old Peasant Lighting a Pipe, c. 1660

5) Tobacco and  bread crumbs, smoky and savory. Santa Maria Novella Nostalgia feels appropriately rustic for the setting.

6) Paul Theodor van Brussel, Dutch. Still Life: Fruit and Flowers, 1787

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) Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, French. The White Tablecloth, 1731-32

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) Carl Blechen, German. Interior of the Palm House at Pfaueninsel near Potsdam, 1834

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) Malashri Ragini, India, Rajasthan. Page from a Jaipur Ragamala Set, 1750/70

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) India, Rajasthan. Raga Malkaushika,Page from a Jaipur Ragamala Set, 1750/70

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.



  • rosarita: This was wonderful to read, look at and imagine; thanks so much. The Art Institute is one of my favorite places and I haven’t been there in far too long. I could spend hours looking at the Chagall windows. May 10, 2012 at 7:59am Reply

    • Victoria: The Chagall windows alone are worth the visit, and I love the Impressionist collection. I simply have to return every time I visit Chicago.

      Glad that you’ve enjoyed it. 🙂 May 10, 2012 at 9:07am Reply

    • Liz: The Chagall windows made such an impression on me and my daughter. She even ended up doing her high school art project on Chagall. May 10, 2012 at 6:54pm Reply

  • Nikki: Oh the Art Institute! We lived in Chicago for 11 years and the museum was one of the best places ever! The brilliant blue of the Chagall windows at the end of the first tract, leading into the ancient Egyptian collection, the amazing housewares and furniture section downstairs, the huge Monet room with hay stacks, and the medieval section were my favorite. It was also fun eating at the outdoor cafe. It is one of the nicest museums around and yes, it is free every Tuesday! May 10, 2012 at 9:31am Reply

    • Victoria: It also has fun miniature rooms, equipped with the period specific furniture. There was a period of time when I would go to the museum every Tuesday and my art history courses were taught there as well. Good times! 🙂 May 10, 2012 at 10:01am Reply

    • rosarita: Please pardon my butting in, but I had to thank you for mentioning the medieval section. I once took a friend of mine and her young sons on a mini tour of Chicago that concluded at the AI. Both boys were very artistic and one was taking painting lessons so I was sure they would love it, but they were tired and grumpy and hated everything at that point – until they saw the medieval section, esp. the weaponry & armor. Instant success! It was truly a *boys will be boys* moment. May 10, 2012 at 10:53am Reply

  • Cathy: Thank you for this lovely post! I enjoyed it on my patio this morning with a glass of iced coffee, and it brought back so many rich memories and associations. May 10, 2012 at 10:55am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad that you enjoyed it! It was fun to write and to select the photos. I must have taken more than 100, and these were some of my favorites. May 10, 2012 at 11:52am Reply

  • Elizabeth: Oh, how fun! Here are my ideas:

    1. Week-end a Deauville, because it strikes me as a very colorful muguet.
    2. The lush plums make me think of Parfum de Therese.
    3. Tonka Imperiale
    4. Petite Cherie, because of the pears and flowers.
    5. Tabac Original
    6. Badgley Mischka. So much fruit!
    7. Tough one. But there is something wine-like about Annick Goutal Ce Soir ou Jamais
    8. Shalimar. An oriental that is completely European.
    9. I love these Indian paintings! Joy, for the rose and jasmine.
    10. I agree, Songes for this one. May 10, 2012 at 12:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: What great pairings, and very inspiring too. Your idea of marrying Le Parfum de Therese with that lush still life is fantastic! I can just smell that ripe, almost too ripe, plum-melon note.

      I love these Mughal era miniatures, which are so delicate and yet capture the characters and the emotions so well. May 10, 2012 at 4:24pm Reply

    • Liz: Brava! I also thought Joy for 9) and Badgley Mischka for 6) is so spot on. That perfume smells like a bowl of ripe fruit to me. May 10, 2012 at 6:57pm Reply

    • marsi: This is so much fun!
      2. makes me think of Mitsouko
      8. Annick Goutal Vanille Exquise
      10. by Kilian Beyond Love May 10, 2012 at 7:42pm Reply

      • Victoria: 🙂 Mitsouko and its golden peaches! May 10, 2012 at 8:06pm Reply

  • Vasilisa: Thank you so much for sharing this inspiring post. I visited Alte Pinakotek at Munich last weekend and could not stop think of scent associations when looking at art. The Art Institute of Chicago sods like a museum worth a visit.. and a trip 🙂 May 10, 2012 at 12:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: Chicago is worth a trip! It has fantastic architecture, great food scene and interesting museums. If you come in the summer, you can enjoy a walk along the lake. The Lake Shore Drive is very scenic. And there’s some great perfume shopping as well. I can give you (and anyone else) more recommendations, since I lived in Chicago for many years. May 10, 2012 at 4:28pm Reply

  • Blacknall Allen: That’s the most aesthetically pleasing game I’ve ever played.
    1. PdN Eclipse
    3. PG Praline de Santal
    4.I agree, Petite Cherie
    5.SSS Tabac Aurea
    6. PdN Eau Turquoise
    7.Dinner By Bobo
    8. The Different Co. Oriental Lounge
    9. Montale White Aoud
    10. Romea d’Ameor The Taj Mahal’s Eternal Love May 10, 2012 at 1:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: Reading the responses to this post is so enjoyable. Praline de Santal has such a luscious, baroque feel that I think that captures the painting perfectly. Thank you for playing along! May 10, 2012 at 4:31pm Reply

    • Liz: I was happy to see Dinner By Bobo on this list, because I love love love this perfume, but it hardly ever gets mentioned on blogs.

      V, will you please review it?

      Thanks for this fun post. Reading the post and the comments and looking at these beautiful paintings really made my day. May 10, 2012 at 7:00pm Reply

      • Victoria: Liz, I haven’t smelled it in a while, but I’ll check if I have a sample around. I remember that it was a fun perfume with a big, bold cumin note.

        Glad that you enjoyed my little museum tour! May 10, 2012 at 8:05pm Reply

  • Stacey: Fun post & great fragrance comparisons! I just love the collection work in the Art Institute and would really like to visit it again someday! May 10, 2012 at 2:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think that the collection there is well presented and curated, and I love the location. Glad that you liked the post. May 10, 2012 at 4:35pm Reply

  • Katherine: Thank you so much for this post! I love the collection of the Art Institute, and I’m always interested in the way that art interesects with scent. Would you mind terribly if I did a version of this at the Metropolitan Museum? May 10, 2012 at 2:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s my next post in these series–Lucy of IndiePerfumes and I were just doing our scent track through the Met, taking photos and looking for perfumed references. But the collection at the Met is so large that I bet we won’t duplicate. May 10, 2012 at 4:45pm Reply

  • Undina: I do not associate perfumes with any images that’s why I’m really impressed when somebody does. I really enjoyed your take on the art-perfume pairing (and some of the commenters did it well also – I wouldn’t be able to do that even if I tried). May 10, 2012 at 9:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: Everyone has their own way of remembering and associating scents. Some people I know associate scents with shapes and even with sounds. Luca Turin is particularly good at making a link between music and scent (and art and aviation.)

      But this is just a fun game. I liked the idea of focusing on the sensory elements, since I live so much by my nose. May 10, 2012 at 9:22pm Reply

  • solanace: Lovely, lovely, lovely. The peaches smell really rich! And I loved the indian miniatures, thanks. Dutch painting is the best, so full of life, light and eye. (and booze.) Your selection, taken as a whole, smelled like fumerie turque to me. May 11, 2012 at 3:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: Guess what perfume I was wearing the day I went to the museum–Fumerie Turque! I remember it, because it was a freezing winter day, and Fumerie Turque decant was one of the few I brought with me on my trip. May 11, 2012 at 3:22pm Reply

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