What Does Rembrandt’s Chiaroscuro Smell Like?

Her golden hair, her pearly skin, and her melancholy face emerge out of the shadows. Bathsheba, an Old Testament heroine desired by King David enough to conspire the murder of her husband, has been painted by many artists, but few have rendered her beauty and her story with as much nuance as did Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.  As Rembrandt’s Bathsheba holds the fateful letter from David summoning her, she is torn between the loyalty towards her spouse and the need to obey king’s command. The duality pervades the entire work, from the subject’s moral dilemma to the drama of the light and shadows.

Born in 1606, Rembrandt remains the emblematic figure of the 17th century Dutch Baroque, and his remarkable use of light continues to beguile. As this year marks the 350th anniversary of the artist’s death, museums around the world stage exhibits devoted to his works. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam presents his paintings alongside other Dutch and Spanish masters such as Diego Velázquez, Frans Hals, and Francisco Zurbarán.  The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London focuses on his masterful use of chiaroscuro, highlighting the theatrical effects of the Baroque style.

With so many occasions to admire Rembrandt’s mastery of light, I found myself imagining the olfactory world of his paintings. Perfumery is also the art of light and darkness, of materials that evoke different colors and sensations. When I was writing a version of this article for FT’s How to Spend It, The Scent of Rembrandt’s Light, I thought of Jacques Guerlain (1874-1963) and his masterpieces like L’Heure Bleue, Shalimar and Mitsouko. L’Heure Bleue, for instance, is a marvelous example of the Rembrandtian chiaroscuro with its contrast between radiant orange blossom and dark musk.

Rochas’s Tocade and Hermès’s 24 Faubourg reminded me that Maurice Roucel is another perfumer able to create dramatic effects. It’s not a coincidence that his fragrances are often described as baroque.

Likewise, fragrances by Annick Ménardo such as Bulgari Black, Lolita Lempicka, Guerlain Bois d’Arménie would fit the theme. Ménardo’s Le Labo Patchouli 24 is one of the most radiant perfumes, and yet it remains dark and somber, creating a striking contrast.

What you find close to Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro in perfumery. What captures the scent of The Jewish Bride, the painting used as the title image?

Paintings: Bathsheba at Her Bath, 1654 :: The Jewish Bride, c. 1665 – 1669. Via wiki-images, some right reserved.

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18 Comments

  • Muriel: Hello Victoria, I’m happy you also had Hermes’s 24 Faubourg in mind for Bathsheba at Her Bath (I don’t know the other perfumes you mention, but I’ll try and discover them during my coming vacation). As for The Jewish Bride, the painting makes my heart race, I don’t know why exactly… it is very tender and there is so much love coming out of it… It looks to me like this couple might be expecting a long-desired child. In my limited library of scents, I think Carnal Flower would be the one I’d choose to go with this painting. WDYT? December 6, 2019 at 8:49am Reply

    • Victoria: The Jewish Bride is one of my favorite paintings by Rembrandt. Now, what would that painting smell like? December 9, 2019 at 10:47am Reply

  • Heidi Czerwiec: Maybe YSL’s Rive Gauche for chiaroscuro, or Amouage Gold for how she glows? December 6, 2019 at 9:57am Reply

    • Mela: As a point of interest, it was customary for a bride to prepare for her wedding by going to a sacred bath (a mikva) for spiritual and physical cleansing. To be made new. The bride is thoroughly bathed elsewhere, hair cleaned and nails cleaned and groomed. Then she is ready and will submerge herself, far enough so no hair floats above water. The water is the freshest as can be. She and the other women say blessings. When she comes out, she is dried by a white sheet of fabric, then made ready and presentable to leave to her place or home. In this picture it looks like she is either getting ready for the bath or coming out.
      Heartbreakingly she still has the letter with her. In essence, David was wrong or darker, and she is righteous and light, obeying the ritual, she is pure if spirit.
      Maybe that puts another ingredient to the question? December 6, 2019 at 10:40am Reply

      • Victoria: Fascinating. Thank you for adding those details. December 9, 2019 at 10:45am Reply

    • Victoria: I like that idea. December 9, 2019 at 10:45am Reply

  • Mela: This is a comment on Bathsheba.. December 6, 2019 at 10:48am Reply

  • spe: Tender, a bit innocent, with an undercurrent of strength and nobility. Somewhat angelic and earthly simultaneously. No overt sensuality. Previous Batsheba had a tired, “experienced” look to her. This Rembrandt has a sense of conflict and naivete. Like a lamb led to the slaughter. Extremely difficult to choose. I immediately gravitated to Apres l’Ondee. However, that isn’t quite right. It doesn’t have enough grandeur. So I choose Chanel 22. December 6, 2019 at 3:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: No 22 seems perfect too! December 9, 2019 at 10:43am Reply

  • Klaas: For me, no other fragranc captures the dramatic interplay of vertiginous darkness transcended by light better then (vintage) Vol de Nuit. It even conjures Rembrandts color palette, with all it’s hues of dark brown, sepia and ocre. A true masterpiece if ever there was one in perfumery!

    Narcisse Noir in close second place; like Vol de Nuit the only way to go is vintage… December 6, 2019 at 5:56pm Reply

    • Victoria: I absolutely love that fragrance! December 9, 2019 at 10:43am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: There‘s an excellent Rembrandt exhibition at the Richard Wallraf Museum in Cologne at the moment: „Inside Rembrandt“. It‘s smallish and intimate, none of the enormous tableaux as in the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, yet very touching and most informative!
    https://www.wallraf.museum/en/exhibitions/now/2019-11-01-inside-rembrandt/information/ December 7, 2019 at 5:12am Reply

    • Victoria: This exhibit looks great! I have to say that given the wealth of the Rijksmuseum, their exhibit was just ok. It was rather small too. December 9, 2019 at 10:42am Reply

  • Aurora: I imagine an orange blossom for the bride, Au Pays de la fleur d’oranger Neroli Blanc. December 8, 2019 at 10:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: I like this idea too! December 9, 2019 at 10:38am Reply

  • Labro Diamantis: I wish to be under synesthesia so I could smell the colors, but all I have is my simple mind and as it travels in Bible’s age and smell petrichor and cedar breeze,I see caravan bringing precious perfumes in alabaster bottles filled with myrrh, nard, rose…
    All I can smell its Caron Perfume Sacre, as Victoria described, and maybe that’s what drived King David in sin…. December 9, 2019 at 6:02am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, that perfume is so beautiful! I like the connections you’ve made with scents and history. December 9, 2019 at 10:35am Reply

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