Looking back at all the perfume books we’ve discussed so far, it strikes me how often perfume writers adopt a dramatic type of prose. We’re told that a world without scent would be “unbearable” (Barillé and Laroze), and that smells have the ability to “detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines” (Ackerman). Perfume is not just a vehicle of elegance or beauty, it’s a transcendental “engine of the universe” (Aftel) that connects past memories with the present (much like that soppy cookie in your cup of tea). Although I’m still a bit wary of poetic metaphors in non-fiction books, I think I’ve come to terms with this distinctive characteristic, and I’m actually starting to appreciate it more and more. Firstly because I do realize that reading about perfumery is as much about enjoyment as it is educational; and secondly, because the elusiveness of perfume does indeed require a good dose of poetic imagery at times. Read Richard Stamelman’s book Perfume, and you’ll understand why.
Until recently, my favorite titles in the ‘generic’ section of my library were The Book of Perfume and Perfume Legends. They’re both well-researched, nicely illustrated, and great fun to browse through on a Sunday afternoon. Michael Edwards’ book in particular seemed like a hard act to follow: if I were writing a perfume book and that one landed on my desk, I’m sure it would discourage me a great deal. Fortunately, the author of Perfume just carried on with his project: to tell the story of perfumery from the mid 18th century to the present against the backdrop of changes in art, literature, poetry, architecture and fashion. The result is a book that is indeed focused on perfumery, only with a much wider scope than we’re used to.
The first chapter, entitled “The Scented Imagination”, serves as a perfect illustration of the author’s approach. It deals with the role of perfume in everyday life, but the story actually starts with a page-filling image of Pierre Bonnard’s painting The Bathroom. It depicts the artist’s lover (and later wife) Marthe de Méligny with a bottle of perfume in her hand. Stamelman uses this as a prime example of perfume becoming visual: the perfume bottle serves as a ‘mediative agent’ in the interplay between the light coming through the window, and the opacity of the body:
The bottle of perfume, which Marthe [...] nonchalantly holds in her right hand, is the all-important barrier and go-between, positioned at that point of confrontation where body and light touch as they dramatically push and pull against each other. The bottle is filled with a liquid as yellow as the wallpaper and as golden as the glowing radiance advancing from behind the window curtains. The perfume in its vessel is yet another form of light within the painting. (p.17)
In Bonnard’s painting, perfume is subjected to a sensorial transformation: the viewer reinterprets it visually, like something lasting and tangible. It’s a trick that modern-day advertisers are probably aware of too. The point of this excercise is made clearer in the book; I’ll limit myself to mentioning it here as an illustration of Stamelman’s remarkable ability to explain the connections between perfumery and the world of fine arts.
Let’s move on to a very brief overview of the rest of the book. The second chapter is a historical account of Napoleon’s impact on perfume culture, featuring an interesting piece on bourgeois and aristocratic attitudes towards perfume between 1815 and 1855. The notion of perfume as a ‘vessel of exoticness’ (largely based on Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil) is the object of chapter three, and is followed by an account of perfumery, symbolism and the woman as an artistic subject (chapter four), the advent of surrealism (chapter five), Art Déco and Modernism (chapter six), the erotic powers of smell (chapter seven, also featured in The Smell Culture Reader), and fragrance narrative in the second half of the 20th century (chapter eight). Everything is well-researched, although you may find some small errors in terms of perfume names and brands (the name ‘Annick Goutal’, for instance, is consistently spelled with one ‘n’ throughout the book).
Clearly then, this book is not about perfume history per se, and it should definitely not be considered as an alternative to The Book of Perfume or Perfume Legends either. It’s focused on the cultural representation of perfumery, making it a wonderful read for those of you who have a passion for fine arts and poetry. The bibliography alone is more than 16 pages long (many references to novels and poems of course), and if I’m not mistaken, the book contains over 200 full-color illustrations. The cover price is $85 USD, but currently it’s available on Amazon for $53.55, which looks like an excellent deal to me.
Richard H. Stamelman is a professor of Romance languages and comparative literature at Williams College, and an honorary member of the Société Française des Parfumeurs.
Perfume: Joy, Obsession, Scandal, Sin.
A cultural history of fragrance from 1750 to the present.
New York: Rizzoli/Universe International Publications (2006)
Hardcover, 384 p.