To Smell a Painting

The idea of using our other senses to form a memory was further supported for me during an exhibition I attended at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery called “Led by the Nose”. The exhibition focused on five Pre-Raphaelite paintings which were paired with a scent, the purpose of which was to try and amplify the aesthetics of the paintings and to place the viewer within it.

Leading the talks were curator of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, Victoria Osbourne and perfume expert Lizzie Ostrum. Ostrum began by saying:

“We all use our noses, we’re all smelling all the time but not always consciously. In an art gallery it’s a harmony of space, light and the work itself and the idea of bringing in any of the other senses is often an after thought. You’re not meant to touch the art work, there’s often no music playing and there’s not much of a smell.”

I could relate to this statement, having spent many years not having a great understanding for some of the art work I had seen in galleries, I found that most of what I’d seen long forgotten. Most of my childhood memories are not those I see in a photograph but are those triggered by sounds or smells. So I was interested to see if my experience during this event would have a lasting impression.

The Blind Girl
by John Everett Millais Oil on canvas 1854 – 1856 Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

The first painting was “The Blind Girl” by John Everett Millais. The subject shows two beggars thought to be sisters of which one is blind.

Millais one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was very much inspired and supported by John Ruskins who was hugely influential within the art world. Not only was he an art critic but was well known for being a social thinker, philanthropist and artist. Ruskins was also married to Effie Gray who later had the marriage annulled and became the wife of Millais.  The Pre-Raphaelite movement dealt with many subjects from religion, literature poetry and social problems during the mid 1800’s. “The Blind Girl” was one such painting looking at the social modern life while dealing with contemporary issues such as vagrancy and homelessness.

Both girls are sitting down and the blind girl has with her an accordion on her lap. She has a sign pinned to her dress “pity the blind”, inviting donations from passers by. The painting is of a real town in Sussex called Winchelsea yet he finished the painting during his stay in Perth, Scotland. The deep blue clouds n the background contrasting with the double rainbow suggest that there has been a rain storm. As it has passed it has made way for the warmth of the sunshine which highlights the blind girls face and surrounding countryside. The painting emits a warm glow and the earth looks invigorated.

The double rainbow in the background caused some controversy at the time of it being first exhibited. A letter to the press pointed out that the second rainbow had been painted incorrectly, the colours being the wrong way round. The colours should in fact mirror that of the first rainbow and so be in the opposite formation, at that Millais re-painted the rainbow to satisfy the mistake that had been pointed out.

The blind girl can’t see the landscape around her and visually she has no memory of it, her strengths and recognition come from her other senses. She can feel the warmth on her face, apparent by the way she holds her head towards the sun. She touches the blades of grass beside her and holds her sisters hand and she can almost certainly smell the wet grass and hear the sounds from the crows and donkeys behind her in the distance.

“What you sometimes see with art is not a truth to nature but sometimes it can be slightly deceptive and the art evokes reality rather than reality itself.” Osbourne, V. (2016)

At this point I was offered a perfume smelling strip with a scent to accompany the painting. As I can’t offer you that smelling strip, I will do my best to describe it. The scent is called Cis – 3 – Hexanol, the chemical compound found in grass and used to recreate the smell. The first sniff reveals a very strong, some what over powering scent and remind me of under ripe bananas just as they are peeled. Going back to the smell which I have kept sealed in a used film canister, smells more subtle. It does have a hint of wet grass to it but my brain is still telling me it’s under ripe banana. One thing I can note is that the smell gives me a strong association to the painting.

“The smell allows you to have a visceral relationship with the art” Ostrum, L. (2016)

by Dante Gabriel Rossetti Oil on canvas – 1882 Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

This was the last painting that Rossetti completed before his death Easter Sunday 1882. There are eight versions of this composition and this was the last to be painted which is the only one to show Proserpine with red hair rather than brown.

Proserpine was the subject of classical Greek myth and the story suggests that while she was gathering flowers in her garden, Pluto the ruler of the underworld came and kidnapped Proserpine and carried her off to Hades, the god of the underworld. Proserpine’ mother Ceres, god of harvest and fertility was distraught at the loss of her daughter and begged the other gods for her return. While Ceres was mourning her daughter the earth became withered and baron.

Jupiter the god of the sky and thunder took pity on Ceres and said that her daughter could return under one condition – that she hadn’t tasted any fruits from Hades or the underworld. However Proserpine had eaten a few seeds from the pomegranate and as a result had to spend half of her time in the underworld before she was allowed to come back to earth.

The myth became associated with the changing of the seasons, the idea that during autumn/winter when the earth stops growing is when Proserpine spent her time in the underworld and spring/summer, when the earth begins to grow is when she returned to earth.

This story also echoes Rossetti’s own life and his love for Jane Morris who was Rossetti’s muse and model in this painting. He painted her over and over again. She loved him too but she was married to Rossetti’s friend, artist and designer William Morris. William Morris knew of this love affair and removed himself from the situation by travelling to Iceland during the summer leaving Rossetti to stay with Jane in their family home.

The painting is very symbolic, the incense burning in the bottom corner suggesting that she was a goddess. the ivy growing in the background is Rosetti’s symbol for clinging hope but also suggests fidelity, eternity,and a strong affectionate attachment. The way in which Proserpine is holding the pomegranate could also be suggestive in the fight between right and wrong, one hand is pulling it towards her lips to taste the flesh while the other is clutching her wrist to pull her hand away. The light in the background is penetrating into the darkness of the underworld and is said to be the light from earth. Finally in the top right hand corner is a poem written by Rossetti which reads:


The scent which accompanied this painting called Pomegranate Noir by Jo Malone came across as very exotic with strong hints of spice. It evokes eroticism and red flesh which compliments the paintings connotation. Though the smell protrudes sweet pomegranate and spice the fragrance is not over powering and it has a subtle sweet undertone of lily. Pomegranate Noir is a modern fragrance yet it was inspired by the Victorians during a period of drama and atmosphere.

The Woman Holding a Rose
by Emma Sandys Oil on canvas 1870 – 1873

Emma Sandys was one of the very few female Pre-Raphaelite painters and very little is known about her in comparison to the male artists of her time. She is the sister of painter Frederick Sandys and a close associate of Rossetti who she was influenced by, you can see by the similarities within their paintings.

The subject shows a beautiful woman painted against a backdrop of beautiful gardens and castle. The red haired woman is clutching a rose and growing behind her is the sweet smelling honey suckle. She gazes out of the frame in a dream like trance as if she is longing for a long lost love and her eyes appear to show a sadness. Her hands are positioned in a similar position to that of Rossetti’s painting of Proserpine though she is not showing signs of pushing the rose away.

There is much debate over the subject in the painting many believing she is a a figure from history or literature. The theory is that the woman is Fair Rosamund a person from the 12th century who was surrounded by romantic myths. She was the mistress of King Henry II of England. Henry created a labyrinth in the garden for her and a place where they could both meet in secret, but his jealous wife discovered the maze and confronted Rosamund.

Eleanor of Aquitaine – King Henry’ wife gave Rosamund the choice of either dying by dagger or by poison, Rosamund chose poison. She is seen throughout history as a romantic figure that met with a tragic end. The castle in the background is said to be that of King Henry II and the honey suckle a symbol of her clinging devotion and love that ill never be forgotten.

A fragrance called White Rose by Floris  was first made in the 1800′ and was a common fragrance back in the 19th century. The smell which is very soapy and strong is not the same smell of rose that I recall from childhood. In many respects I am glad that the smells are different because being the same may distort and mix my childhood memory with this memory and I want to keep them separate. As I breathe in White Rose I am not drawn to the rose within the painting but rather the honey suckle and I am told that the fragrance contains hints of violet which may be the answer.

The Boer War by John Byam Liston Shaw Oil on canvas – 1901

“The Boer War” by John Byam Liston Shaw is considered very late to be a Pre-Raphaelite painting however it is within the same style. Though the painting doesn’t evoke war as it’s title suggests it does focus on the subject of loss and the people left behind.

When it was first exhibited Shaw included a quote in the catalogue by Christina Rosetti:

“The Bird Song – Last summer green things were greener, brambles fewer, the blue sky bluer.” (Christina Rosetti)

It’s about looking back, the memory of a happier time. The subject in the painting is unknown but she is wondering by a stream or river. She has lost someone in the war depicted by the symbols – she dresses in black, a colour of mourning, she carries a skein of wool which has links to the bible and the colour of which is purple, a colour that is also linked to mourning. She isn’t married because there is no wedding ring on the left hand but she does wear a ring on the right which could be a token from a lover, suggesting that she isn’t mourning her father or brother. To reinforce this notion there are pairs of animals within the painting, butterflies, birds and a single white feather which may be from a swan and the idea that swans pair for life. There is also a single crow flying away from her which could be related to death. There is no suggestion of the time of day, there are no shadows and the reflections are very bleak. The colours are very dreary in comparison suggesting a sombre mood.

This painting was paired to a fragrance called Jardin de Poete but the strong smell of citrus contradicted the sombre atmosphere portrayed in this painting, evoking thoughts of the Mediterranean rather than South Africa. It does however deliver a sense of spring and offers warmth and hope. The scent hints undertones of basil, grapefruit, tangerine and cypress trees.

Medea by Frederick Sandys Oil on canvas – 1868

Frederick Sandys, brother of Emma Sandys was fascinated by dangerous, beautiful women. Medea – was a sorceress and murderess, she fell in love with Jason, leader of the Argonauts in Greek mythology. She used her magical powers to help Jason secure the golden fleece from the dragon, in return for marrying her.

They married and had children and were happy for a time but Jason abandoned her after being offered Princess Glauce’ hand in marriage by the king. Medea used her magical powers to reap her revenge. She made an enchanted potion which she put on a dress and sent to Glauce as a wedding gift. As soon as Glauce put the dress on she burst into flames and burns to death.

The painting shows Jason’ ship and opposite you can see the golden fleece with the coiling dragon. It shows the aftermath of betrayal, Medea – her face full of anger, despair and passion. The ingredients for her potion laid out in front of her as the thoughts of her plans roll around in her head.

The pairing of the scent for this painting worked perfectly, called Marescialla by Santa Maria Novella. Immediately the smell evokes age, the strong smell of spices relating to the potion. The fragrance is said to have been made in the late 17th century by monks and the smell is dank with medicinal properties. However it was originally made for a woman called Leonora Dori Concini who’s story reflects that of Medea.

She was the wife of the Marshal of France and he was suspected of spying by Louis XIII and executed. Without her husband for protection Concini became an outcast among her circle and she was rumoured to be a witch. She met her doom when she was beheaded and burnt.

The End!

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