What does Rembrandt’s beguiling chiaroscuro smell like?

Our perfume blogger selects four scents that contrast sombre and luminous notes

Clockwise from top left: Guerlain Liu, £205 for 125ml EDP. Hermès 24 Faubourg, £91 for 50ml EDP. Guerlain L’Heure Bleue, £93 for 75ml EDP. Le Labo Jasmine 17, £127 for 50ml EDP
Clockwise from top left: Guerlain Liu, £205 for 125ml EDP. Hermès 24 Faubourg, £91 for 50ml EDP. Guerlain L’Heure Bleue, £93 for 75ml EDP. Le Labo Jasmine 17, £127 for 50ml EDP

Red hair, jewels shimmering darkly against pearly skin and a melancholy face emerging from the shadows. Bathsheba, the Old Testament heroine desired so much by King David that he plotted the death of her husband, has been painted by many artists, but few have portrayed her with the same nuance of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. In the Dutch master’s painting, Bathsheba holds the fateful letter from David summoning her; she is torn between loyalty towards her spouse and the necessity of obeying the King’s command – a duality dramatically conveyed in light and shadow. 

Rembrandt’s “Girl at a Window” (1645)
Rembrandt’s “Girl at a Window” (1645) | Image: Dulwich Picture Gallery

Rembrandt’s remarkable use of light continues to beguile 350 years after his death – an anniversary that is currently being marked with exhibitions at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Dulwich Picture Gallery. Like Rembrandt’s masterpieces, perfumery is also the art of light and darkness, requiring a skilful combination of materials that evoke different impressions. One perfumer who attained Rembrandt’s level of skill in manipulating contrasts was Jacques Guerlain (1874-1963), whose classic scents include Shalimar and Mitsouko. L’Heure Bleue (£93 for 75ml EDP), for instance, is a marvellous example of Rembrandtian chiaroscuro – its radiant accord of orange blossom and iris emerges out of the darkness of musk and tonka bean. Even a lesser-known Guerlain creation like the shimmery floral Liu (£205 for 125ml EDP) has a deep, sombre layer that makes the jasmine and rose petals appear more luminous. 

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Guerlain achieved these contrasts by overdosing certain key ingredients, such as bergamot in Shalimar, and cleverly layering accords. A base blending materials like iris, rose, tonka bean, sandalwood and musk functions as a dark, velvety backdrop against which the bright notes flicker back and forth, creating a complex effect. It’s no coincidence that Guerlain classics are often described as dramatic, ornate and sumptuous.

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Yet one can also find a glimmer of Rembrandt’s light in contemporary fragrances, chiefly those by Maurice Roucel, a perfumer who has made the study of olfactory chiaroscuro his mission. His 24 Faubourg (£91 for 50ml EDP) for Hermès, an orange blossom set into dark amber, is a perfume of exquisite contrasts, while his Jasmine 17 (£127 for 50ml EDP) for Le Labo is another orange blossom, but this time it masquerades as dusky jasmine. Orange blossom’s ability to shift between delicate citrusy freshness and opulent animalic warmth is at the heart of these unusual juxtapositions, which mesmerise with a dramatic flair that is unmistakably baroque.

Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog, boisdejasmin.com, since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.

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