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New Exhibit Brings the Scents of the 17th-Century Painting 'The Sense of Smell' to the Real World

Michele Debczak
"The Sense of Smell" by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens
"The Sense of Smell" by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens / Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, Wikimedia Commons

Four hundred years ago, Flemish artists Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens used the visual medium of oil paint to evoke an olfactory experience. You no longer have to use your imagination to engage with the smells highlighted in their painting The Sense of Smell. As Smithsonian reports, a new exhibition at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain, pairs the artwork with 10 real fragrances inspired by the scene.

The exhibit, titled “The Essence of a Painting: An Olfactory Exhibition,” is a collaboration between the museum's chief curator of Flemish and Northern European paintings, Alejandro Vergara; and Gregorio Sola, a senior perfumer at the fragrance company Puig. To develop the interactive scents for the show, Sola drew inspiration from 10 elements in the work of art.

The Sense of Smell is part of Brueghel and Rubens's series The Five Senses, which also includes paintings celebrating touch, taste, sight, and hearing. For their ode to odor, the artists depicted Venus and Cupid lounging among various symbols of scent, such as flowers, distillation vessels, perfumed gloves, a scent hound, and a civet. Sola's concoctions concentrate parts of the painting into distinct fragrances. A whiff of "Fig Tree" calls to mind the tree in the painting, while "Gloves" recreates the smell of gloves scented with ambergris with help from a 17th-century formula.

To experience the aromas, visitors to the exhibit must tap on one of the four screens installed in the gallery. Using the AirParfum technology developed by Puig, a diffuser releases a puff of the scent. After inhaling a spectrum of smells ranging from orange blossom to civet musk, the guests will be fully immersed in the world the artists envisioned.

“The Essence of a Painting: An Olfactory Exhibition” will be exhibited at the Museo Nacional del Prado now through July 3, 2022. The project is the latest example of artists using the sense of smell in innovative ways. In 2020, New York-based textile designer Pallavi Padukone used scent-infused textiles to capture the fragrances of her home.

[h/t Smithsonian]