Smell and Stereotype in 18th- and 19th-Century Visual Culture

Ersy Contogouris, University of Montreal,

Érika Wicky, Université Lumière Lyon 2 / LARHRA,

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the ‘olfactory revolution’ that reoriented conceptions of smell led to renewed meanings and functions of this sense in social life. The epistemological shift that strongly linked olfaction with the nervous system, the development of hygiene as a science, and the flourishing of the perfume industry contributed to transforming the significance of smell. The act of smelling thus became involved in many identity constructions such as nation, race, gender and class. Olfaction came to be gendered; for instance, as specific smells became associated with women, the act of smelling was seen as pertaining to the feminine by means of objects such as scent bottles that performed women’s supposed extra-sensitivity to smells, and perfume was increasingly used to bolster the association between women and flowers. At the level of nations, the high proportion of Italian and French perfumers in England contributed to the construction of national stereotypes.

This session seeks to examine ways in which visual culture expressed and reinforced the role of the sense of smell in the construction of stereotypes. Graphic satire, for example, abundantly challenged the invisibility of smell, often representing stench and fragrance in order to express political criticism, reinforce social hierarchies, or identify censorious behaviour. Caricaturists, such as Gillray, Boilly and Daumier greatly contributed to stereotyping in allegories, expressions of disgust provoked by miasmas, and representations of effeminate characters such as fops, macaronis, muscadins and dandies. By examining these and other issues related to the representation of smell in the creation and circulation of stereotypes, this session seeks to provide a cross-disciplinary contribution to both the history of visual culture and the history of the senses.

Speaker and Abstracts

Living Made Easy: The fashionable 1830s flâneur’s accessory to avoiding city stench and miasma

Kris Belden-Adams (University of Mississippi)

A hand-coloured etching by London printer R. McLean from 1830 satirically advertises the fashionable ‘dandy’ urban gentleman’s most convenient fashion accessory: a black top hat equipped with glasses, a sound amplifier, a cigar, and a ‘scent-box’ filled with ‘sweet-smelling herbs’ to protect against disease spread by miasma – toxic city vapours widely believed to carry illnesses.

By ‘modern’ standards, London – like most major European cities – was still a ‘medieval’ city, sanitation-wise, in the 1830s. Physician Félix Hatin, writing in 1832, claimed that pools of urine and piles of excrement were found everywhere on city streets in an era of horse-drawn urban transportation. Sewage disposal consisted of emptying chamber pots in the street. That waste material joined a build-up of rainwater, rubbish and sometimes-toxic industrial refuse/run-off to create a repulsive-smelling mush of off-putting odours.

Using this humorous advertisement for the multi-tasking flâneur’s hat as a springboard, this paper will discuss the use of satire to comment on social class, the status of urban sanitation management, and disease control in an era in which foul smells were believed to transmit disease. In a broader sense, this social and cultural history offers a look at how mass media (printmaking) matured in fits and starts alongside urban sanitation, epidemic control and medical science, and was employed to comment on these endeavours.

Fragrant Femininity and Women Artists: Disrupting the scented stereotype

Christina Bradstreet (National Gallery of London)

In line with traditional gendered coding of the senses, the act of smelling was defined by art, c.1850–1914, as an irrational, feminine pursuit and as a subject best suited to the irrational, emotive art movements that followed in the long wake of Romanticism, including Aestheticism and Symbolism. In turn, the identification of women with the act of smelling and therefore with magic, seduction, private sensory pleasure, nostalgia, daydream and hysteria, reinforced stereotypes of women as leisured, emotional and irrational. Images of beautiful young women dominate the smell-related paintings, photographs and graphic design of c.1850–1914. Motifs of women or girls smelling fragrant flowers, burning leaves, applying scent, making potions and potpourri, performing magic, shimmying to incense fumes or swooning and suffocating amid intoxicating perfumes recur across diverse styles, movements and mediums.

This fusion of the fragrant and feminine appealed to an erotic fantasy of passive, static and anonymous femininity, and was one of the ways in which the patriarchy preserved and perpetuated male privilege. Yet, as the momentum for women’s liberation gathered pace in the late 19th century, several women artists, including Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and Maria Yakunchikova repositioned the ‘scented vision’ away from erotic voyeurism towards the evocation of the experience of sensory immersion. This paper explores how women artists and female sitters, such as Helen Keller, disrupted the paradigm, even adapting the motif of a woman smelling flowers, to convey a picture of feminine agency, self-invention, education and independence.

Gender and Sensitivity to Smells at the Salon

Érika Wicky (Lyon 2/LARHRA)

‘At the Salon, the Savoyard elbows with impunity the cordon bleu; the fishwoman (sic) exchanges her odours of brandy with the perfumes of the woman of rank, who is often obliged to hold her nose.’ As is shown in this quotation attributed to Joshua Reynolds, the annual French Salon was a place of social integration that could be metaphorised by the mingling of smells. Smells were potent social markers in the 18th and 19th centuries (Corbin, 1982), and this was nowhere truer than at the Salon, where social classes were considered to be revealed not only through the smells emanating from the visitors and the subjects depicted in the paintings, but also through individuals’ varying sensitivity to smells. 

In this model, while sensitivity to bad smells appears to have been socially determined, it also seems to have been related to gender. And as Baudelaire’s prose poem The Dog and the Scent-Bottle (1857) shows, sensitivity to smells could be substituted with another sensory metaphor, that of taste. This paper will investigate 19th-century works of graphic satire that represent bourgeois visitors holding their noses, fainting, using salt bottles, wearing clothespins on their noses and even scuba gear, in order to show that these visual expressions of olfactory sensitivity were used to stigmatise the artistic taste of both women and the bourgeoisie.

Perfumed Promises: Delettrez’s Amaryllis du Japon advertisements (1891–94)

Hyoungee Kong (Pennsylvania State University)

This paper traces the queering effects of appropriating Orientalist stereotypes on discursively Western subjects by focusing on japonisme, or the Western taste for Japan, and the primary channel through which fantasies of Japan reached 19th-century French women: fragrant cosmetics. It examines the Parisian perfumery Delettrez’s fin-de-siècle bestseller, Amaryllis du Japon, and the central motif of the perfume’s advertising campaign (1891–94): a kimono-clad Japanese woman surrounded by Amaryllis blossoms. I argue that this figure, who appeared in colour posters and illustrated advertisements in periodicals promoting Amaryllis du Japon, was signified by stereotypes of Japanese femininity, medico-literary discourses on female olfactory arousal through flowers, and homoerotic appeals of the fin-de-siècle commercial visual culture of eroticised femininity to the female consumer. What she offered to prospective consumers as a visual representation of a japoniste perfume was a localised pleasure that would grow into a sensorial deluge as enticing and exceptional as sapphic sexual experiences. Her visual allusions to olfactory arousal from flowers as well as her associations with Japan’s supposedly transgressive bodily norms, underlined the promises of self-shattering experiences of overwhelming sensual joy associated with sapphism in Paris at the time.





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