Jan Brueghel, the Elder’s painting shows peacocks and civets roaming the grounds. And a child plucks a petal from a stem and inhales the scent. The Smell was painted in the 17th century. Since that time, viewers have said that the smell of spring was so strong that it seemed to come from the painting.
From now visitors to the Prado Museum in Madrid have the chance to breathe in the aromas of the painting. For “The Essence of the Picture. Olfactory Exhibition”, Alejandro Vergara, Prado’s chief curator of Flemish painting, hired a team of olfactory experts to recreate 10 elements of the scene.
The researchers identified about 80 plants and flowers in the painting. Animal odors have also been identified, such as beagle and guinea pig. They also spotted several perfume-related items, including scented gloves and vessels for distilling essences.
Gregorio Sola, the Senior Perfumer at Puig and Academician of the Academy of Perfumes, has recreated 10 fragrances associated with this incredible diversity. Now visitors can try perfumes from four diffusers in Hall 83 of the Prado.
At the exhibition, the audience will see a bouquet of roses, jasmine, orange blossom, the fig tree, and kid gloves scented with amber, based on the real 1696 formula. And while the scent of a guinea pig has been wisely left to the imagination, Puig’s diffusers diffuse the harsh musk of a civet curled up in the lower right corner of a Brueghel painting.
Civet essence is commonly used in historical fragrances due to its longevity. However, “no animals were harmed here,” Sola explained in a video released by the museum. Instead, perfumers used synthetic bases or natural essences of the highest quality.
The Smell is part of a series of works on the five senses made by Brueghel and his friend, the eminent Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, between 1617 and 1618. Ruben presented the five senses in the form of allegorical female figures, while Brueghel introduced lavish scenery.
Sight, for example, shows a feeling, which was allegorically depicted as a young woman looking at a picture of Christ restoring sight to a blind man. This painting within the painting appears in a room filled with paintings, astronomical instruments, and other eye-catching curiosities.
In a Prado video accompanying the exhibition, Vergara explained that he hopes the olfactory exhibition will inspire viewers to look for other works in the series.
“When people come to see this exhibition, they will open a window, a door to another culture, including me. So it’s kind of a learning process, which is one of the most rewarding things in life,” he said.