Jean-Honore Fragonard, The Lock, 1777-1778 Courtesy Buly 1803 

What Does a Fragonard Smell Like?

French perfume brand Buly 1803's new collaboration with the Louvre (yes, the Louvre), has the answer.

by Nadja Sayej
Oct 13 2019, 9:45am

Jean-Honore Fragonard, The Lock, 1777-1778 Courtesy Buly 1803 

The Louvre is where you go to see art—not smell it.

But that recently changed. The Paris museum is now home to a pop up by luxury French perfume brand Buly 1803, which recently opened on the museum’s premises. The brand’s co-founders, Victoire de Taillac and Ramdane Touhami, teamed up with the museum for what they call a tourist shop from the 19th century. Set in one of the Louvre’s grand alcoves, this pop up is like stepping back into a historic apothecary, with old cabinets, painted walls and a counter service that feels like a storefront from the 1920s.

Until January 6, the shop features eight fragrances, each modeled after a masterpiece on view at the Louvre; from the Venus de Milo to the Nymph with Scorpion. The label invited eight different perfumers to interpret the artworks, and “bring to life a masterpiece.” The project, entitled L'officine Universelle Buly au Musée du Louvre, invited each perfumer to creep into the 225-year-old museum during its quietest moments to spend time with each work of art and figure out the perfect olfactory combination that would allow people to “wear the artwork.”

To fully allow the public to immerse themselves into these artful smells, each masterpiece scent is also available as soaps, candles, and diffusers, all presented in the style of the brand’s trademark 19th century packaging.

One of the Parisian perfumers in the project is Delphine Lebeau, who chose to work with The Lock, a rococo painting created by French artist Jean-Honore Fragonard in 1777. It portrays a couple in a sumptuous bedroom, entrenched in a dance-like embrace. The man’s hand reaches over to lock the door with a key. The scent is described as “the heady thrill of an illicit rendezvous.”

Jean Honore Fragonard The Bolt Louvre
Jean-Honore Fragonard, "The Lock," 1777-1778 Courtesy Buly 1803

Lebeau began her quest with one question: “Is it a simple genre scene in the libertine spirit of King Louis XV’s reign, which ran from 1715 to 1774, or is it a moralistic tale?”

“The painting itself shows profane love, as opposed to its counterpart, sacred love,” said Lebeau, who has previously created scents for Fendi, Esprit, and Yves Rocher. “Its smooth finish, along with the use of a powerful chiaroscuro, illustrate a dramatic change in Fragonard’s style.”

When approaching the idea for her scent, Lebeau included flowery notes of citrus and a soft fruity afterglow. This white musk described as “scorched scarlet by love’s burning touch.”

“I used white lily flower and musk for a bewitching perfume,” she said. “The smell of lily immediately came to my mind when diving into the painting, with its erotic, intoxicating and flesh-like scent; for the softness, I created an apple and chestnut accord, which evoke the velvet curtains.”

The Fragonard painting has an apple sitting on a bedside table beside the lovers, like the temptation of Adam and Eve. “The apple directly comes from the painting,” adds Lebeau. “I let my emotions take over: the balance between tension and softness.”

The Lock is a painting she has admired for years. “Even though there were other world-famous artworks to choose from, this is the one my heart immediately settled for,” said Lebeau. But she still had to revisit the artwork at the Louvre. Lebeau spent a few hours gazing at the painting in the museum, then dug into research around the famed artwork. “I dived into different aspects of the painting I had never thought about before, going beyond the mere aesthetics of it,” she said. “It has drawn a lot of commentary from famous art historians, and I was fascinated to discover these new dimensions, and enter the sensory realm of Fragonard’s creation.”

What she found was a love story. “I chose it because of the complete timelessness of the topic—love and desire, and the very particular atmosphere it evokes,” she said. “There is a tension of the senses, a softness from the colors and textures, like the velvet curtains to the woman’s dress, there’s a warmth to the painting, which I find compelling.”

Buly 1803 Louvre
Candles, perfumes, and soaps are a few of the products that are part of this collaboration.

Buly's 1803 roots date back all the way to the 18th century, when Jean-Vincent Bully established a distillery in Paris in the year 1803. And while stepping back in time is not unusual for a brand with such history, creating a scent for a century-old artwork is certainly a different kind of challenge for a modern perfumery. One that Lebeau found exhilarating.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s also very exciting and fun, as you need to transcribe a very concrete and visible piece of art, a painting, into something invisible and intangible, a scent,” she said. “You can let your imagination go free but having the original kick from the art makes you fly high.”