Perfume, Art & Art History

Wake up, class!  It’s Art History Time!!!   Wait!  Come back!  It’ll be fun, I promise!



December 2012 Elle Magazine has a great article about the art version of synaesthesia in perfume (I’m making up the synaesthesia part but it’s as close as I can get to describing this – for me- Elle’s subhead says “April Long reinterprets fragrance through the prism of art history” – and that works just fine for me, too!) – but let’s not split semantic hairs here – the  docent’s here, let’s take a walk through the galleries:


In the article, Ms Long (and others) describe certain perfumes in relation to particular art movements.  In my opinion she’s spot-on with some and just…weird with others   (and, remember:  art, like perfume, is subject to taste – and never more so than when you are attributing a style/color/era to a scent.  So ymmv, okay?  And I definitely want to know YOUR thoughts on this).  I’ll let you read the article and come to your own conclusions but here are a couple that really stood out (or stuck out) for me:


Fauvist period:  Fracas and YSL Opium.  WILD BEASTS!!!  Remember:  Fauvism was terrifying in its day.  The first Modernist painters, using bold colors, often directly from the tube, they were shocking to those accustomed to paintings in the Classical styles.    Fracas scares the peanuts off a lot of folks, even to this day.  And I, who fear little, fear Opium.  One drop, on my fingertip, chased me 4 blocks down Michigan Avenue!  My contemporary addition to  that list of “Wild Beasts”?  I would add Ava Luxe’s Madame X.   and Parfumerie Generale Drama Nuui, which is the epitome of bright green and gold, straight out of the tube.

Expressionism (Figurative.  Long covers Abstract in the article) –   I’m a huge fan of this period, loving the ‘brute force’ of Emile Nolde, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix…James Ensor, who was a great influence on Expressionism (imagine coming upon this in the early 1900s!)

Mitsouko fits into my hysteric vision of Expressionism.  Takes no prisoners, flouts convention.  Terrifyingly gorgeous.

James Ensor

Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring/Mitsouko

Ms Long loaded up the Impressionists with The Usual Suspect: the gorgeously melancholy Apres l’Ondee, to which I would add Frederic Malle’s  En Passant, on the Malle website called an ‘impressionistic’ fragrance.   Another?  Amouage Memoir.  Just elusive enough to make you want to look (or smell) closer.


She put Angel, Balenciaga Florabotanica and CHANEL No 5 in Cubism.  Uh…….oh! okay.  Like with the Fauvist/Fracas, she likens the ARRIVAL of Chanel No 5 to the arrival of Cubism.  Okay.  I can’t argue with that one.  Nor can I argue with Angel in that same category, even though I hate it like a mongoose hates a snake.  It did herald a completely new trend in perfumery and  I while I really wish it hadn’t caught on quite so well I applaud the daring approach. See, I don’t have to love Angel to respect it!  It belongs in this category.  However,  Balenciaga must’ve paid a boatload of ad money to be included therein, though.  That Florabotanica is such a ‘meh’ scent, totally unworthy of that fabulous packaging.   I would’ve put Xerjoff’s Irisss therein (or  Serge’s De Profundis, which gave me a whole new way to look at chrysanthemum, prior to which I’d never thought of as having a place in perfumery).


School of London. David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, RB Kitaj (and others) – a self-described school of Expressionist-influenced figurative painters.   My babies.  Messy, bloody, weirdly divine.  I would’ve put Mitsouko herein as well, but She can’t be everywhere!   This is Lucian Freud’s vaunted ‘Self Portrait 1985″, painted at  the height of his talent and power.  Scent it.   (I put that painting in Jubilation 25 – woman – what say you?)

Lucian Freud

Self Portrait 1985/Jubilation25


what about this one?  I dares ya!   (I keep thinking it’s Clinique Aromatics Elixir, which Ms Long puts in the Baroque period.  Nah.  It’s Scary New World.   New Life, lots of pain, but a lot of hope and a bit of joy, looking towards the future)

r.b. kitaj

“Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees)”, 1983-84/?????







Okay!  That’s MY version of things.  What perfumes conjure what art for you?  Or vice versa?  (I put Pieter Breugel’s The Wedding Dance in Noir Epices.  I also rehung it – for realz (it was askew to the point of falling off the wall) .  Why am I not in prison?  God looks after lunatics)


The Wedding Dance/Noir Epices

  • When I smelled Parfum d’Empire Musc Tonkin, I thought of Orientalist paintings – Ingres’ “Tukish bath” and “Great odalisque”, Jean-Léon Gérome’s work… The Orient seen through the eyes of a Western gentleman.

  • ElizabethC says:

    I just finished this article and then went to the Serge Lutens Facebook site. The background of the site features a beautiful illuminated manuscript. I love, love, love illuminated manuscripts (especially the Gothic and Mughal style) and they really do link with Serge Lutens style.

  • What a wonderfully thought provoking post! I was actually thinking upon the relationship between fragrance and visual art this weekend while walking through exhibits at LACMA. Since, I’m rather new to the world of fragrance I cannot give an expansive answer, but I can understand a fragrance better if it is compared to a movement in the visual art world. I disagreed with her assessment of Chanel Beige, placing it in a category that has no relationship to reality. At first I thought, “But is smells just like flowers!” Then, because she placed in the conceptual category, I have begun to reasses what I truly sniff in Beige. You know, what? She may be right!

    This such a helpful way to look at fragrances for me. Compare them with literature, music and movies, and I would also understand the way a fragrance is perceived. Perception is such an important part of the enjoyment and the relational aspect of art is what makes perfume so enjoyable!

    I can agree with Angel being placed in cubism, but I actually think of Guernica by Picasso. In person it is bold, in your face, inescapable, and memorizing. As I stood in front of it, at the Sophia Reina museum in Madrid, I was captivated by the horror of war, disturbed by the colors slashing a crossing the canvas, and inspired by the imagery. Angel is that experience for me, utterly unforgettable, horrifying, intriguing, and an instant love for me.

  • noseknows says:

    Love this post! Wish it was a weekend poll so more time to play and hundreds of comments, but here goes. Rousseau would definitely be Manoumalia. 🙂 Vermeer is the entire Heeley line. BK Liaisons Dangereuses is Ingres, and his Ouds are Georges de La Tour. The classic Guerlains are Rembrandt. And of course some of those Eau d’Italie Duchaufours (like Sienne L’Hiver) are medieval Italian paintings. Generally Duchaufour also reminds me of some medieval German altar pieces with strange bright colors, like an almost acid green.

  • tammy says:

    Is this similar to what Chandler was trying to do with his museum thingee? Because I didn’t get that, either. Honestly, it’s all quite a bit above my raisin’. Not so much the comparisons, but the actual art. Fauvism is still terrifying to me ( and I had to Google it!) Mind you, I do love the vivid color. But I am definitely a hillbilly and I kinda like things to look halfway normal, with no nightmare-qualities or weird proportions….. at the very least I like to know for sure what it is I be a-ponderin’. My taste runs towards those Old Masters whopping still lifes of bouquets with the odd half-dead flower and bugs and everything, very life like.

    I love Alexandra’s comment down further, comparing artists rather than movements. And since I tend to like my perfume Old School, I guess it’s not really surprising I am drawn to those Old School artists, maybe?!

    • Musette says:

      I can’t speak to Chandler’s project but I think it’s every bit as interesting to do it with artists as with periods. Nothin’ wrong with Old School, darlin’ – it’s ALL good! Vermeer, Titian, Holbein…we’re talking OLD. And I adore them!


  • Ramona says:

    What a great idea- I think all art is related! I have never smelled Jubilation XXV, but I IMAGINE it might smell like John Collier’s “Priestess of Delphi” Hope it is ok to paste a link to the picture? If not, I guess you could shun me, but I would miss this blog =) seriously, delete if not allowed.

    • Musette says:

      That kind of link is totally fine. And it isn’t Jubilation XXV. It’s Jubilation 25 (the woman version) which I find way ‘chewier’. This particular self portrait of Freud’s is my absolute, all-time favorite of all time forever and ever, a-men! I suspect it is similar to Sargent’s paintings, where the paint is so thick you could pick it up by the subject’s nose! LOL!


  • Tai says:

    This was such a great article! I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when Long pitched it to the editors at Elle. This definitely throws down the gauntlet for approaching my perfume sniffing from a different perspective. It’s daunting and bracing at the same time. Here I am über-pleased with myself for being able to pick out the individual notes in Bleu de Chanel all by myself the other day and now I realize that while notes are essential to knowledge of perfume, they certainly aren’t the whole story. Such a newb! Here’s my attempt, just for grins: I’m wearing Malle’s Lipstick Rose and feel like it belongs in right up there on the Rococo shelf with Candy. It’s just so pretty and sweet and ridiculously frivolous. (BTW I think I actually said “WTF” out loud when I saw the Balenciaga juice in there. Cubist it may be, but certainly not the calibre of No. 5 pr Angel (blech!). Perhaps if their perfumes were even remotely as daring and gorgeous as the clothes that the house produces, then maybe it’d fit. But they aren’t.)

    • Musette says:

      Honey, you keep that ‘newb’ mind, you hear? That will serve you better than you think! I agree with you on the Baroque facets of Lipstick Rose. A friend wanted to argue for Carnal Flower therein but I actually find it too linear for that period (perfect and gorgeous as it is). Where would you put that?

  • Irina says:

    wonderful writting, great choices, full of witt
    thank you

  • I have also thought several times about the link between art and perfumes (an art genre by itself). Rather than combining whole artistic movements with fragrances, I connect particular perfume houses with painters. To me, a Picasso smells like a Serge Lutens; bold, complicated, uncompromising with a twist, and not for the faint of heart… L’Artisan could provide the appropriate playful setting for a Miro creation, and Guerlain could revitalise Monet’s waterlilies with one spray. As for Mitsouko, maybe Van Gogh’s brushes could evoke her mysterious and effervescent classic beauty…
    Thank you for this great review!

  • Ann says:

    Wonderful, thought-provoking post, darling M! I have to head off to work now, but will be pondering this for awhile to see what I come up with, artwise. BTW, did anyone see the Barney’s / Frederic Malle interview talking about how he’s envisioned the FM scents in color (with prints to illustrate)? Very cool! The only downside: They didn’t feature Carnal Flower 🙁

    • Musette says:

      He’s a bit of a synaesthete, as am I! The Carnal Flower box kind of freaks me out – it has a bit of an ‘ovum’ feel to me. Some of the others are just fabulous, though!!!

  • Sandstorm936 says:

    I never really thought about paintings and perfume. But when I think about it, I get Van Gogh’s Starry Night with Sarrasins. Deneuve seems to summon another of Van Gough’s work called Irises. My taste in paintings leans more to Van Gogh and Vermeer and my taste in literature leans to Poe or Wilde, depending on the day.

  • Heather Wood says:

    All very interesting. I very much liked the association of Opium with Fauvism. I love Fauvist paintings (many, not all) and I love Opium, and they do have a similar “here is everything I can possibly imagine right now” quality. Or, sometimes, “Here’s everything I feel like throwing at you right now.” The Lucien Freud suddenly made me think of the drydown of SSS Tabac Aurea, which smells to me like the highest quality sawdust: a man reduced to his most essential particles. Can we play the same game with entire museums? Some of the galleries in the Marmetton make me think of Flowerbomb, while the main galleries in the Uffizi smell (figuratively) of Demeter Holy Smoke. I’m trying to wrap my mind around the idea of Angel having historical importance, even if it’s also vile and loathsome. All I can say is that I’ve seen late Victorian paintings of kittens that look very much like Angel smells.

    • Musette says:

      Alas, vile often has a very solid place in history. Alas. Angel, much as I loathe it, was a groundbreaker. I love the idea of the Freud (my favorite self portrait) as SSS Tabac Aurea (and your description of it). Museums: the Frick always smells like Messe de Minuit to me.


      • Heather Wood says:

        Your point about the historical stability of the truly vile is very well taken. If you have a minute, could you explain to us beginners why Angel was groundbreaking? I admit that I’ve never given it any thought beyond “ick.” I dearly love the hall of dinosaurs in the Smithsonian, and I can imagine it smelling of De Profundis, with its exquisite whisper that “you, too, will go the way of all flesh.”

        • Ann says:

          Spot on Heather and Musette re: your museum scents. I won’t be able to visit them now without getting a hint of those in the air!

        • Musette says:

          oooh! Dinosaurs and De Profundis! Yes!!!! I think Angel was the first mainstream gourmand – until then nobody had done that Chocolate Vomit note (or if they did, I didn’t know about it! 🙂 It ushered in a whole era of ‘ick’, imo. But it’s definitely got its place in Perfume History!