COMPARED WITH the perfume bottles on exhibit at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, our current-day flacons, even the most whimsical ones, are plain Janes. Imagine your favorite scent being contained in a little porcelain figure of a monk or a country maiden, or even the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.
Hillwood’s “Perfume & Seduction” certainly seduced me. All of a sudden those dreadful little figurines people collect seem charming, not gauche. Well, almost. The display here of genre figures—typical characters of a town, just as you might find in a crèche scene—date from the 18th century and have the workmanship to prove it.
If the perfume holders are special—made of enameled gold or copper, glass, porcelain, hardstones such as agate and bloodstone—the people they were intended for were the special people of the day, starting with the men and women who frequented the court of Louis XIV. Lesser folks could not have afforded to commission such works.
Lesser folks may not even have imagined such things existed. Or perhaps when they saw a wealthy gentleman passing by holding a vinegar-filled vinaigrette to his nose they might note how the fancy folks couldn’t stand the stench of the world at large. (Nor might we Americans, who have banished smell from just about everywhere. Been to a supermarket lately? Does it smell like food? God forbid. It smells mostly of, well, not much. But on balance, today’s lack of smells is better than the raw sewage, rotting garbage, tanneries and abattoirs that gave Paris her heady 18th-century fragrance.)
Today fragrance can be a final touch before a man or woman marches off to the theater. Roll back the calendar a few hundred years, though, and it had a bigger role as the wealthy developed a new preoccupation with personal hygiene. What now seems like a grace note may then have been a saving grace.
The little Dacha and the Adirondack Building on the Hillwood grounds are the perfect environments for exhibiting small, precious items. An exhibit in 2015 of the jewelry Pierre Cartier and Post collaborated on was held in the Adirondack; “Perfume” is housed in the Dacha.
There’s an associated show-and-smell exhibit at Hillwood. Turn right inside the Greenhouse and you get glorious orchids, those showoffs; turn left and you can tour many of the plants and flowers that go into making perfumes and flavorings. There are the usual suspects—lavender, vanilla, gardenia, jasmine, cinnamon, rosemary and Provence roses—but nature isn’t quite as cooperative with curators as inanimate objects are: Most of the plants are not in bloom right now. Still, I learned that about 8,000 jasmine blooms render less than a teaspoon of essential oil and that about 75 percent of all perfumes use roses as a floral note. A sign stated that the Provence rose is intensely scented and therefore much in demand, but honestly the one or two blossoms didn’t smell that strong to me, even when I poked my nose in one.
I also learned that potpourri consisted of a mixture of dried flowers and was devised in Paris in the late 1600s, long before it migrated to every overdressed B&B in America in the 1980s. Actually, 18th-century European aristocrats would probably approve: They placed potpourri on tables and mantels, burned incense and aromatic pastilles, carried vinaigrettes. I don’t know about the seductive powers of perfume, but I do know they make for a better-smelling world.
Perfume & Seduction, Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, 4155 Linnean Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008; 202-686-5807; hillwood museum.org. The exhibit runs through June 9, 2019. Tickets are $18 ($15 for those 65 and older).