What Does This 17th-Century Painting Smell Like?

A new exhibition in Spain incorporates ten fragrances inspired by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Sense of Smell”

"The Sense of Smell" painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Sir Peter Paul Rubens
Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, The Sense of Smell, 1617–1618 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A work of art has the power to transport its viewer to another time and place. Now, the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain, is taking that idea one step further with a new exhibition that incorporates smell to enhance the experience of a 17th-century painting.

Per a statement from the museum, “The Essence of a Painting: An Olfactory Exhibition” focuses exclusively on The Sense of Smell, a work created by Belgian artists Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens between 1617 and 1618. The show, on view through July 3, invites visitors to not only look at the oil painting but also smell ten scents inspired by it.

For the show, Alejandro Vergara, the museum’s chief curator of Flemish and Northern European paintings, partnered with Gregorio Sola, a senior perfumer at Barcelona-based fashion and fragrance company Puig and an academic at the Academia del Perfume in Madrid.

Exposición: La esencia de un cuadro. Una exposición olfativa 04/04/2022-03/07/2022

Sola developed new fragrances based on elements of the painting, which depicts Venus and Cupid surrounded by exotic flowers, birds, animals, and objects related to perfume (such as distillation vessels and scented gloves). The scent “Fig Tree,” for example, brings the refreshing, vegetal scent of the fruit tree in the painting to life, while “Allegory”—which combines rose, jasmine and carnation—embodies the bouquet of flowers Venus is smelling.

According to a statement from the Academia del Perfume, other featured fragrances include an amber-scented leather glove, orange blossoms, jasmine, roses, lilies, daffodils, civet (a perfume ingredient made from the secretions of a carnivorous cat) and nard (an oil derived from a flowering plant).

“Our olfactory memory is stronger than our visual or auditory memory: the memory of our mother’s perfume, of our first kiss, of our first car, or of the first day at school with the smell of new pencils and paints,” Sola tells the Guardian’s Sam Jones. “We all have our own olfactory memory and the idea of this exhibition is that Jan Brueghel’s painting will leave its own memorable olfactory print on all of us.”

Museum visitors can smell the various fragrances by touching a photo of the painting on four digital screens dotted across a gallery. A diffuser that uses special AirParfum technology created by Puig then emits the perfume. The goal of the technology, which has been installed in retail stores throughout Europe, is to allow individuals to smell many different perfumes without oversaturating their noses.

Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, The Sense of Sight​​​​​​​, 1617
Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, The Sense of Sight, 1617 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Sense of Smell is part of the artists’ The Five Senses series, which also includes The Sense of Touch, The Sense of Taste, The Sense of Hearing and The Sense of Sight. Brueghel painted the scenes for the pieces, while Rubens painted the allegorical figures. The five works are all on view in the same room at the Prado.

Per the Academia del Perfume statement, the series was likely commissioned by Albert VII of Austria and Isabella Clara Eugenia, Archduchess of Austria and the daughter of Philip II of Spain. Brueghel worked as a court painter for the couple.

“I had a sense that people do not pay enough attention to Brueghel,” Vergara tells Artnet’s Dorian Batycka. “His attention to detail, often miniaturistic, shows a keen sensitivity to the five senses. All that I was really trying to do was call attention to the sense of joy that these works produce in me, hoping that others will see—and smell—this as well.”

The Essence of a Painting: An Olfactory Exhibition” is on view at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain, through July 3.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.