Postcard from Brussels : Flemish Chiaroscuro

Among the things I missed the most during the lockdown was going to a museum. The soft light in the exhibition halls, the scent of wood polish, and the silence add as much to my experience of the museums as the art itself–and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels has plenty of it to admire. So when the restrictions were lifted, I headed to the museum and stood in front of my favorite paintings, greeting them like old friends. It was reassuring, a reminder that despite it all beauty will claim its own space.

The reason I feel this way rather acutely at museums is because they are testaments to historical events and traumas. Positioned though they are as shrines to art, wars, conquests, and colonialism have had their role to play in the riches that famous museums exhibit. It’s enough to make one ambivalent about the whole enterprise, and yet I still like museums. I still feel comforted by their ambiance. Art still inspires me to think differently, to push my boundaries, and to seek something new. The awakening of our curiosity is one of the greatest values of art, and deriving pleasure from finding things out is part of happiness as I see it.

Standing in front of a Flemish still life also reminds me that art was not always conceived at the behest of royalty. Rather, it was the middle classes who commissioned and consumed the paintings of luscious food or scenes from everyday life. Art need not have an exalted subject. It can still inspire longings. This still life by David II Ryckaert, for instance, makes me want to reach out for that crunchy biscuit. Would it taste salty or sweet, I wonder?

If you could come up with a perfume for this painting, what would it be?

David II Ryckaert, Nature morte au homard, 1600s. Still Life with a Lobster, les musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique.

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59 Comments

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    Thank you for this interesting post. For me, too, art galleries are places where I savour the quiet, and greet art works that are old friends, as well as find new ones. The Queensland Art Gallery is very bright, and I like this about it, as it creates a wonderful sense of space and airiness. It has been too long since I have been, and your writing has brought this home.

    That is a lovely painting. I want to eat the lobster, tear apart the bread and add a little butter, and sample the biscuits! Perhaps a fragrance like L’Artisan Parfumeur Couleur Vanille would go well with it, as it contains salty notes, along with vanilla and a little spice (for the biscuits).

    Here is one of my favourite paintings from the Qld Art Gallery – “Under the jacaranda” from 1903 by Godfrey Rivers. Perhaps the couple is eating seafood, bread or biscuits!

    https://learning.qagoma.qld.gov.au/artworks/under-the-jacaranda/

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline September 7, 2020 at 8:03am Reply

    • Victoria: What a beautiful painting! Thank you for sharing. I like the way Rivers used orange–the umbrella, a bit on the gentleman’s cheek, on the table, flickering amid the branches. Such an atmospheric painting. September 7, 2020 at 8:21am Reply

      • Tourmaline: I’m so glad you like it. I knew that you would appreciate the detail! September 7, 2020 at 8:24am Reply

    • Karen A: Wow, beautiful painting! September 7, 2020 at 9:33am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Hi Karen,

        Isn’t it? I’ve always loved it. September 7, 2020 at 10:13pm Reply

        • Silvermoon: What a beautiful painting.

          Speaking of Art museums in Australia, I absolutely loved the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Both the aboriginal art and modern Australian art. The story of Ned Kelly was memorable as was the aboriginal art. Quite fantastic and one of the best museums I have visited. September 18, 2020 at 12:37pm Reply

          • Tourmaline: Hi Silvermoon,

            It’s so lovely.

            Alas, I’ve never been to Canberra, so I’ve never seen the gallery, but One Day…! September 18, 2020 at 6:22pm Reply

    • Peter: Aloha Tourmaline. Mahalo for sharing this colorful painting that represents your native Queensland. You can feel the fragrant breeze. September 7, 2020 at 9:02pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: G’day Peter,

        You’re welcome! When jacarandas are in bloom here, it means that it’s university exam time! This is one of the most popular paintings at the gallery. Yes, you can practically feel the breeze. September 7, 2020 at 10:16pm Reply

    • Eudora: Thank you for sharing. Beautiful! September 8, 2020 at 8:42am Reply

  • Karen A: Museums are one of my most-missed outings! The National Gallery in DC has reopened, but I’m not quite ready to venture there, maybe in a few more weeks.

    Despite not trying it (sample is on order though), Ormonde Jayne’s Woman from what I’ve read and heard about it, sounds like a good perfume for this painting.

    Maybe a light, transparent amber but can’t think of one!

    Here’s to museums and art and all that inspire us. September 7, 2020 at 8:10am Reply

    • Victoria: I very much like that perfume!
      L’Artisan used to have a good sheer amber, called Ambre, but it must have been discontinued for ages. These day I crave something like that, sheer, light, not too sweet. September 7, 2020 at 8:25am Reply

      • Karen A: A sheet amber sounds perfect for our weather right now. Days are warm and nights are chilly. September 7, 2020 at 9:30am Reply

        • Victoria: Same here, this is my favorite weather. September 8, 2020 at 2:43am Reply

    • Klaas: Hey Karen, the National Art Gallery in DC is a treasure trove! One of the most beautiful museums I ever visited! It is also not as overrun as its NY or European counter parts…..At the Musée d’Orsay in Paris people take selfies with the paintings….Insta terror!!

      I hope you can return to the museum soon to enjoy the beauty! September 7, 2020 at 4:39pm Reply

      • Victoria: I don’t get the appeal of selfies at the museums. At the Musée d’Orsay someone actually pushed me aside to take a photo. September 8, 2020 at 2:50am Reply

        • Klaas: I know……it’s just chocking to see how some people behave when they are on their smart phones…..the world around them ceases to exist somehow!

          Actually, now would be a perfect time to visit some of the top museums…..probably a lot less people there! September 8, 2020 at 4:06am Reply

          • Victoria: I don’t remember if it was Rijksmuseum or the Mauritshuis that banned selfie sticks, but I support this policy.

            The museum was nearly empty when I went. September 9, 2020 at 4:23am Reply

        • Eudora: Museums like tourist attractions. Selfie, check! Next. I run away. September 8, 2020 at 8:59am Reply

      • Karen A: We are really fortunate here – great museums that are all (or almost all of them) free. The NGA really is beautiful and has an amazing collection. Plus excellent gelato in the cafeteria! September 8, 2020 at 7:28am Reply

        • Eudora: Oh Karen, every year we travel to DC but this year we cannot make it and I feel so sorry, really nostalgic about it. The Smithsonian Institution is incredible. Last year I explored the discreet Freer Gallery of Art…what a beauty! A jewel! September 8, 2020 at 8:29am Reply

          • Karen A: The Freer is amazing isn’t it!!! It’s such a gem. And the Sackler has some incredible exhibits and treasures. I’m so sorry you all were not able to come this year. Next year! September 8, 2020 at 12:46pm Reply

            • Silvermoon: Hi Karen, my favourite was the Sackler. Loved popping in once in a while, when I lived in DC in the early 1990s. September 18, 2020 at 12:42pm Reply

              • Karen A: Wonderful! I just learned that the names been changed, not 100% sure of correct name, Museum of Asian Art maybe?? Was listening to a Smithsonian lecture on the architecture of mosques last night and the speaker mentioned it. September 18, 2020 at 12:58pm Reply

        • Klaas: Hahaha, yes, the cafeteria is really good. And the museum shop………very dangerous!!! September 8, 2020 at 9:46am Reply

          • Karen A: Hmmmm I never knew there was a gift shop…hahahaha. yes, it is quite enticing! September 8, 2020 at 12:51pm Reply

      • Eudora: Hello Klaus, it is one of my favorite places on earth. What I love about it, about all the Smithsonian museums in DC, is how they feel like places to enjoy, they feel vibrant and full of life. And free. September 8, 2020 at 8:37am Reply

        • Klaas: So true! September 8, 2020 at 9:47am Reply

        • Karen A: Have you been to the Library of Congress? Be sure to if you haven’t. You can get a Readers Card if you have some extra time. The American Folklife Reading Room has an incredible collection of music from all over the world (American in the reading room name does not reflect the range of the collection). September 8, 2020 at 12:49pm Reply

          • Eudora: We go to the Library of Congress every year and we always take the tour! It is a tradition. Beautiful building. DC is impressive. The same day we usually visit the Capitol… September 9, 2020 at 11:28am Reply

            • Karen A: When (not if!!!!) you visit next time, get a Readers Card and check out some of the Reading Rooms. There are numerous ones. I started giving myself research projects just as an excuse to go to the Library of Congress! I always feel a bit like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz when I walk in to the main Reading Room as I feel like I should just start spouting interesting information through osmosis! September 9, 2020 at 4:35pm Reply

              • Eudora: I will Karen! Have a great day! September 10, 2020 at 7:32am Reply

              • Silvermoon: Oh what fond memories! I did some of my early doctoral research in the Library of Congress. Wonderful place to study and research. September 18, 2020 at 12:45pm Reply

  • Tourmaline: Hello again,

    I couldn’t resist adding another painting, this time one called “Plums and Prawns” from 1948 by Margaret Olley.

    https://static.wixstatic.com/media/f937de_4afbfa3b51aa470a96f8badefa957561~mv2_d_3114_2316_s_2.jpg_srz_600_446_85_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srz

    No biscuits, though!

    I went to a fabulous exhibit of Ms Olley’s work last year, accompanied by my Auntie Jenny. September 7, 2020 at 8:19am Reply

    • Victoria: A beautiful painting. Again, the choice of colors catches my attention. September 7, 2020 at 8:25am Reply

      • Tourmaline: She especially used lots of oranges and blues in her paintings. They are such joyful works. September 7, 2020 at 8:29am Reply

    • Marsha: Now that painting is really lovely. The detail is especially wonderfully. September 7, 2020 at 9:38am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Hi Marsha,

        Yes, Margaret Olley always brought things to vivid life. September 7, 2020 at 10:18pm Reply

    • Peter: Aloha Tourmaline. This still life is closer to Victoria’s delectable example. The prawns (your favorite) look especially mouthwatering! September 7, 2020 at 9:11pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: G’day again Peter,

        Yes, I have to confess that, in the absence of any prawns, I succumbed to the lure of a mini bag of potato crisps after reading this post – something salty! September 7, 2020 at 10:21pm Reply

        • Victoria: 🙂 That sounds good to me. I ended up eating almonds, not the candied ones like in the painting, but still, it was close enough. September 8, 2020 at 2:04am Reply

          • Tourmaline: Sometimes, you just have to eat something, and you have to make do. Fortunately, the crisps hit the spot. Almonds sound good, too! September 8, 2020 at 2:07am Reply

  • Muriel: The colour of the slice of bread, together with the cookies, makes me think of “couques de Dinant”. Have you already tasted those, Victoria? It’s a Belgian cookie, well, not really the size of a cookie, because they can be quite big (for those who don’t know these, just google the name!), made of wheat and honey and that’s all! They are very hard and their smell is quite unique: of course there’s a lot of honey, but they are backed in wooden forms which gives them a not so sugary smell… I don’t know if any perfume can come close to that woody honied smell? September 7, 2020 at 8:57am Reply

    • Victoria: I went to Dinant the first year I came to Belgium and bought several of these cookies. The shapes were stunning. After trying to bite into one of them, I just left them up as decoration. They were hard as stones! Now I think that I should have dipped them in tea or coffee. How does one eat them? The smell was wonderful, though. September 7, 2020 at 9:17am Reply

      • Muriel: Haha, it’s true some are just impossible to eat! I haven’t had any for years, but as a kid, I remember asking for these around St-Nicolas and then they were not as hard as the ones we once got from Dinant… maybe they make more of these around that period of the year??? maybe Dandoy in the city center has “softer” ones? (that’s where my parents were buying the speculoos around St-Nicolas). Otherwise, indeed, I’d say dipped in tea, coffee or warm milk… but the shapes and the smell are what I remember most 😉 September 7, 2020 at 11:32am Reply

        • Victoria: I’m not a fan of Dandoy these days. They use some of artificial flavoring, or perhaps natural, but essence, rather than the actual spice. I did like their speculoos when I first came here, which is now almost 10 years ago. September 8, 2020 at 2:45am Reply

  • AndreaR: I am mesmerized by The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild.
    https://www.rembrandthuis.nl/meet-rembrandt/rembrandt-the-artist/most-important-work/the-syndics/?lang=en September 7, 2020 at 12:16pm Reply

    • Klaas: Oh, that is a magnificent painting! One of his most famous! The color palette is so sparse, yet he achieves such richness! And those white collars…. September 7, 2020 at 4:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: A beautiful painting. My mother and I went to to Rembrandt Huis once, and it was such a moving experience. September 8, 2020 at 2:46am Reply

  • Aurora: Your posts about art are always so inspiring, Victoria. I too missed museums very much during lockdown. At the moment I am in Drôme Provençale where history and art are at every street corner where a medieval tower subsists, inside a cool church where a moving nativity hangs in a small chapel.

    Reminiscence Dragée would go very well with the Belgian cookies, it has a beautiful citrus note and the almondy drydown is the best I have ever experienced, as delicious as Mandorlo di Sicilia. September 7, 2020 at 1:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: When I was a student in France, I liked the south especially for its melange of culture and history. And so many beautiful scents… September 8, 2020 at 2:48am Reply

  • Kneale: What a beautiful painting! I love Ryckaert’s use of colour and texture to bring the cookies to life. The use of the bread, as well as cookies, makes me think of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Bois Farine but I think even more of the Belgian speculoos cookies and 5 O’Clock au Gingembre by Serge Lutens. I miss museums so much and am so grateful to have recently visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Seeing the art was like being with old friends! Thank you for this delightful post. September 7, 2020 at 3:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: Ah, it’s been ages since I’ve smelled Bois Farine, but I can recall it perfectly. Wasn’t it such a distinctive perfume? September 8, 2020 at 2:49am Reply

  • Klaas: I thought maybe Epice Marine from Hermes? It lacks darkness to really match the painting, but the lobster made me think of it. And those cookies for sure contained exotic spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom.

    The colors however make me think of Coco Chanel…. September 7, 2020 at 4:54pm Reply

    • Peter: Mahalo Victoria for sharing your Flemish treasure. I was trained to be an Art Museum Observant at an early age. My Mother even planned a trip to the South of France on access to the Matisse Chapel in Vence. My most memorable experience was viewing a Georges de La Tour exhibit in Paris when I was a teenager.

      Regarding a fragrance that matches your magnificent still life, I came up with the obvious, Frederic Malle Dries Van Noten. But, I think Klaas’ choice of Epice Marine is perfect! September 7, 2020 at 8:50pm Reply

      • Victoria: Such wonderful memories those must be.
        Dries Van Noten perfume would also be perfect, I think. September 8, 2020 at 2:52am Reply

    • Victoria: I also think that it would work. Epice Marine doesn’t strike me as all that light, although it’s sheer. September 8, 2020 at 2:51am Reply

  • Debi Sen Gupta: I am no expert. Either in perfumes or paintings but this one makes me think of honey and oranges. And maybe chocolate too.

    Maybe there is a perfume which smells like these ingredients. September 8, 2020 at 6:45am Reply

    • Victoria: That sounds so good! September 9, 2020 at 4:23am Reply

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