Volume 23, Issue 1 | Spring 2024

Scented Visions: Smell in Art, 1850–1914 by Christina Bradstreet

Reviewed by Jan Marsh

Christina Bradstreet,
Scented Visions: Smell in Art, 1850–1914.
University Park: Penn State University Press, 2002.
290 pp.; 42 color and 32 b&w illus.; notes; index.
$119.95 (hardcover), $34.95 (paperback)
ISBN: 978–0–271–09251–5
ISBN: 978–0–271–09252–2

How can a smell be pictorially conveyed?

Historically, western art has devised means to represent invisible things, like winds puffing across painted skies, or wholly immaterial essences such as divine spirits in the form of golden discs and shooting lines. Mostly, smells—whether sweet, stinky, sharp, or smoky—are conveyed through associated images signaling the viewer’s response “in real life,” as we say. The dominant image in Christina Bradstreet’s survey of late nineteenth-century European art is of a rose and a nose belonging to a pretty girl. This comes close to collapsing idea and referent, both being offered for sensory pleasure without the cruder message of women as pluckably consumable, as in so much art of the era.

In her introduction, Bradstreet stresses the paucity of scholarship on the subject of smell, asserting that hers is one of the first studies dedicated to recovering its role in art. Despite the relatively narrow range of illustration, Scented Visions is an ambitious book, moving widely in the critical, popular, and commercial literature of its chosen decades, to explore cultural meanings. The first example is the moralized depiction by George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) of a girl holding an almost invisible violet while sniffing a gaudy, scentless camellia. This is the famous 1864 image Choosing (National Portrait Gallery, London), overtly censuring the model, the young actor Ellen Terry (1847–1928), whom the artist had just married, for preferring personal display on the public stage over anonymous domestic service—and other women for similarly incorrect values.

Later, a less familiar but equally striking picture is Fumée d’ambergris (Smoke of Ambergris, 1880; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown) by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). A large study in off-whites, this depicts a statuesque shrouded woman lifting her enveloping garment to inhale the smell of smoldering ambergris, the curious substance from whales’ intestines that is prized by perfumiers to intensify smells. A comparable message is of the oriental danger of submission to exotic attractions allied to lipstick, kohl, and painted nails, all subtly seen under the drapery but rather obscured by the high Aesthetic presentation.

Unsurprisingly, since easel art aimed to sell to bourgeois customers through pleasing images and associations, bad smells do not much feature in Victorian painting.

Part 1 (chapters 1–4) of this ambitious book, entitled “Seeing Smell,” introduces the role of smell in Victorian visual culture, in its wider European and North American arts context. Expanding the usual critical vocabulary, which has been rather restricted, it examines the changing ways in which images of the olfactory were depicted and received. The first chapter addresses the representation of smell, considered as a noun, in the context of changing ideas about stench, the visual lexicon for representing smell as a verb, the scientific efforts to describe and define smells, odors, perfumes, and stinks, and ideas about the synesthetic experience of looking and imagining.

Chapter 2 starts with contemporary anxiety around foul scents from the “Great Stink” of raw sewage in the Thames that engulfed London in 1858 and pre-scientific theories of disease caused by “miasmas” and foul air, of which there was much, industrial, human, and animal. Social realist painting later in the period sometimes depicted smelly scenes such as Luke Fildes’s (1843–1927) destitute queue for the Casual Ward (1874, Tate Gallery, London) or Augustus Edwin Mulready’s (1844–86) starving street children. But these seldom placed pictorial emphasis on the stench of poverty that so disgusted the well-to-do and made cleanliness such an issue for reformers. One would like to speculate, how did olfactory notions inflect Walter Sickert’s (1860–1942) sludgy brushwork? Did viewers wrinkle their noses as they looked? Do we do so, too?

It was a time of amazing inventions and interventions in daily life, some, like telegraphy and electricity, with virtually invisible causes and therefore barely credible to many. Future possibilities abounded. Fugitive sense-impressions like fragrances might be made tangible; one day, artworks might convey smell, taste, and touch. (Sometimes today, with rotting fruit, decaying flowers, and preserved flesh, they do, not quite as our forebears imagined.)

The core of the volume lies in chapter 5, “Scent, Memory, Visions.” This opens with a formal explication of John Everett Millais’s (1829–96) Autumn Leaves (1855–56; Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester), the second key work invoked, showing a group of girls around a garden bonfire of foliage, the scent of smoldering indicated by half-seen wisps of smoke. The familiar smell of autumn (in Anglophone regions at least) and the girls’ sober expressions lead critically to thoughts of lost innocence, past ghosts, grief, opium, evocative adverts, and the decadent movement, even as far as Proust’s (1871–1922) madeleine and all searches for lost time. This trajectory illustrates the wide pictorial and literary scope of Bradstreet’s study, which also interweaves chemical, physiological, and psychological knowledge and theories expounded at the time.

The overarching analysis is that of emergent aestheticism, as the arts transitioned from the moral and educational to that of pleasurable (in sometimes perverse forms) consumption.

Chapter 6, “Scent and Soul,” explores the religious and spiritual associations of smell as a sensory faculty, citing Millais’s The Blind Girl (1856; Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, Birmingham), who lacks sight, and Simeon Solomon’s (1840–1905) fascination with pagan, Jewish, and Christian incense wafting from censers swung by acolytes. The contemporary ecclesiastical debate over such Romanish rituals as “smells and bells” seems to have reached mainstream art in the form of virtually bodiless censing angels; how far did these arouse imagined smells for viewers?

“The Erotics of Scent” (chapter 7) moves easily from The Blind Girl’s symbolically closed eyelids to the sensual motif signifying female desire, typically of a sexual kind rendered metaphorically by the nose and face close to or inside flower petals or some other source of aroma. This takes the young women (as they mostly are, given the market demand for “queens of beauty” in their purchases and prints) beyond reverie into the realms of intoxication and abandon. John William Waterhouse’s (1849–1917) The Soul of the Rose (1908; private collection) is an epitome. His earlier The Shrine (1895; private collection) shows his familiar model—here with dark hair—stooping to sniff or kiss a bowl of blossoms in an unexplained wall niche, as if the smell stands for her body’s desire.

Smell becomes more sinister—or desirable according to one’s psychic state—in chapter 8, “Death by Perfume,” with Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s (1836–1912) celebrated Roses of Heliogabalus (1888; Juan Antonio Pérez Simón collection), illustrating the debauchery of the Roman emperor’s decision to smother banquet guests with an avalanche of petals. Or at least, this is how it is described in the classical text; no, no, according to the artist, “they are not dead or dying, but luxuriating” (200). Being overcome by asphyxiating sensuous experience is here the pinnacle of decadent enjoyment. Similar but sadder is the fate of Albine, one of Emile Zola’s (1840–1902) forsaken heroines, who fills her curtained bed with blooms and similarly suffocates, although in John Collier’s (1850–1934) Death of Albine (1895; Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, Glasgow) she does so simply with a suicidal inhalation, as if the flowers’ scent is itself deadly.

Moments of verbal and visual comedy, allied to the astringent but uncensorious prose style, make Scented Visions fun to read. Critically engaged though light on theory, it is packed with quotable quotes from periodicals and a robust enjoyment of middlebrow consumer culture. It also offers additions to one’s vocabulary—rhinencephalon being a semi-redundant area of the brain, petrichor the odor of wet grass when the sun comes out, and osphresiolagnia coined by Freud for neurosis-causing erotic arousal through smell (all three recognized by spellcheck).

Bradstreet’s broadly-scoped and closely-observed survey is published in the series Perspectives on Sensory History, a theme now rising in art and literary studies. Smell is a current scholarly fashion. Scented Visions concludes with questions for historians of later periods. Can we say that Chanel N°5 was a modernist artwork? How was the stench of warfare visually conveyed during the World Wars? Were opinions of Jackson Pollock’s (1912–56) drip painting in black, white, pink, and grey altered by its change of title from Number 1, 1950 to Lavender Mist—apparently at the suggestion of smell-averse critic Clement Greenberg? There are opportunities for more critical inquiries.