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The Essence of a Painting. An Olfactory Exhibition

Madrid 4/4/2022 - 7/17/2022

On display until 17 July in Room 83 of the Villanueva Building, The Sense of Smell, a painting by Jan Brueghel and Rubens, is the focus of The Essence of a Painting. An Olfactory Exhibition, curated by Alejandro Vergara, Chief Curator of Flemish Painting and the Northern Schools at the Museo Nacional del Prado, and Gregorio Sola, Senior Perfumer at Puig and an academician of the Perfume Academy, who has created ten fragrances associated with elements in the painting.

Brueghel’s work, which evokes the garden of rare trees and plants belonging to Isabel Clara Eugenia and her husband in early 17th-century Brussels, depicts more than 80 species of plants and flowers, as well as various animals associated with the sense of smell, such as the scent hound and civet, and a range of objects relating to the world of perfume, including scented gloves, vessels  holding fragrant substances, a perfume burner warmed in a sumptuous brazier, and vessels for distilling essences.

Gregorio Sola, senior perfumer for Puig, member of the Academia del Perfume, and creator of the ten fragrances, and Alejandro Vergara, Senior Curator of Flemish and Northern European Paintings, Museo del Prado


Room 83. Villanueva Building



With the technological sponsorship of:
In special collaboration with:


The exhibition

The exhibition
The Sense of Smell
Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel The Elder
Oil on panel, 66.5 x 110 cm
1617 – 1618
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The Essence of a Painting. An Olfactory exhibition represents a new approach to the Prado’s collections, on this occasion through the sense of smell. With this aim in mind, and with the technological sponsorship of Samsung, the special collaboration of the Perfume Academy Foundation and the “AirParfum” technology developed by Puig, the perfumer Gregorio Sola has created ten fragrances associated with elements present in the painting The Sense of Smell, part of the series on “The Five Senses” executed by Jan Brueghel in 1617 and 1618 in which the allegorical figures were painted by his friend Rubens.

It is the sense of smell that allows visitors to appreciate the different elements depicted in the painting. In order to achieve this Gregorio Sola, Senior Perfumer at Puig and a numerary academician at the Perfume Academy occupying the Sandalwood Chair, has created fragrances such as “Allegory”, which encourages viewers to focus on the small bouquet of flowers which the allegorical figure is smelling; “Gloves”, which reproduces the smell of gloves scented with ambergris, based on a formula of 1696; “Fig Tree”, and which leads us to spot the tree in the painting; and “Orange Blossom”, which directs the gaze towards the still used to obtain the plant extract. In total, ten fragrances which accompany the sense of sight and provide unique sensations for an appreciation of the painting.

The Sense of Smell, Jan Brueghel and Rubens, 1617-18

The Sense of Smell, the work that provides the exhibition’s central focus and inspiration, is part of the series on “The Five Senses”, exhibited in its entirely in this gallery, which Jan Brueghel painted in 1617 and 1618. The allegorical figures in the scenes are by his friend Rubens.

The series was probably commissioned by the Infanta Clara Eugenia and her husband Albert of Austria, rulers of the Southern Low Countries, for whom Brueghel worked as court painter. The objects included in these scenes reflect art collecting and taste at the European courts of this period. In 1636 the five paintings were in Madrid in the collection of Philip IV, who had them installed in a room decorated with two ebony and bronze bookcases, shown alongside works attributed to Dürer, Titian and Patinir, among others. These paintings were among the highlights of the king’s collection.

Brueghel was one of the most appreciated painters of his day. Son of Pieter Bruegel (the two artists spelled their names differently), he trained with his grandmother, the miniaturist Mayken Verhulst. Brueghel lived in Rome, Naples and Milan from 1589 to 1596, where his clients included Ascanio Colonna (also a patron of Cervantes) and Federico Borromeo. The latter wrote that the artist’s painting reflected the beauty and variety of nature.

Most of Brueghel’s career was spent in Brussels and Antwerp and he was among the earliest specialists in flower painting. On one occasion he stated that he took a long time to finish his works because they included flowers that bloomed at different seasons of the year. His distinctive use of his pigments evokes the texture of the flowers and plants which he painted, suggesting his remarkable empathy with these motifs.

10 fragrances to be smelled in the exhibition with the “AirParfum” technology

10 fragrances to be smelled in the exhibition with the “AirParfum” technology
The Sense of Smell
Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel The Elder
Oil on panel, 66.5 x 110 cm
1617 – 1618
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The “AirParfum” technology developed by Puig and unique in the world of perfume makes it possible to appreciate up to 100 different fragrances without overloading our sense of smell while respecting the identity and different notes of each perfume. Through the four diffusers in the Samsung interactive touchscreens available for use in the gallery, visitors can appreciate the smell of the 17th-century elements present in the paintings.


This perfume, created by Gregorio Sola, draws inspiration from the bouquet of flowers that the allegorical figure of smell (painted by Rubens) holds in her right hand. Its ingredients are rose, jasmine and carnation. The world of perfume considers jasmine the king of flowers given its strength and luminosity and the rose the queen because of its seductive fragrance and ability to combine well with other olfactory families. The spicy facets of the carnation add volume and sensuality to the bouquet.


The elites of Early Modern Europe would perfume their gloves to disguise the foul smell that resulted from tanning leather and to create a pleasing fragrance. At the time, Spanish perfumed gloves were highly valued. Rubens (who painted the figures in this scene) left Spain in 1629 carrying two gloves perfumed with amber as gifts for the infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, ruler of the Southern Netherlands.

The fragrance that we can smell here reproduces the smell of a glove scented with amber using a recipe from 1696. It consists of resins, balms, wood, and flower essences with a hint of suede.

Fig tree

This perfume, developed by Gregorio Sola, interprets the green, humid fragrance under the shade of a refreshing fig tree on a summer’s day. We can detect the velvety texture of its leaves and feel the dark, wooden tones of its trunk and branches.

The fig tree originated in Northern Asia Minor. It has grown spontaneously in the Mediterranean Basin for centuries. In this painting by Jan Brueghel, the small tree is planted in a clay container so that it can be brought outside on sunny days but kept inside during the cold winters of Northern Europe.

Orange blossom

The essential oil distilled from orange blossoms and used in perfumery is known as neroli; it is the scent that we can smell here. The distillation devices on the left side of the painting were used to refine this kind of product.

The term “neroli” originates with Marie-Anne de la Trémoille, whose several titles included Princess of Nerola, a town in Lazio. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries she made this fragrance fashionable by using it to perfume her gloves, clothing and baths.

In Northern Europe, where Jan Brueghel painted this scene, citrus trees were highly valued and necessarily raised in greenhouses.


When jasmine flowers are submerged in a fatty, volatile liquid, their aromatic components are enriched. After that liquid is saturated, it is lightly heated in order to force it to evaporate: the resulting wax is called “concrete”. When this semi-solid mass is dissolved in pure alcohol, a highly aromatic oily mixture is obtained. This is known as “absolute”. What we can smell here is the exquisitely floral aroma of an absolute of jasmine. Its scent is delicate yet intense, with green, creamy facets and a slight animal note.

Jasmine smells differently throughout the day: it is more restrained in the morning than at night, when it is more opulent. Like many other plants that we can see in this painting, jasmine is an import from warmer climates.


Roses are the best known of all flowers. Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” According to Pliny the Elder, in the first century the rose was the most used flower in perfumery.

As described by a perfumer, the fragrance of a rose is fresh, floral, velvety and intense with green facets and a slight fruity touch, combined with spicy notes and a subtle hint of honey.

Three hundred thousand roses, picked in the early morning, are needed to obtain 1 kg of essence.

Jan Brueghel has included eight varieties of roses in this painting, including damask and centifolia, the most used in perfumery.


Iris root is one of the priciest ingredients in perfumery–its value is twice that of gold, due to its complex and time-consuming elaboration process. The absolute is obtained not from the flower, as is the case with other plants, but from its rhizome (called orris root) which must mature between five and seven years before it can be pulverized into orris butter and distilled.

It is cultivated mainly in the fields of Tuscany surrounding Florence, where the iris has symbolized the city since the Middle Ages. In the first century, Pliny the Elder wrote that iris root was used to make ointments.


The daffodil used in perfumery is cultivated mainly in the Aubrac region of France. It is harvested at the end of May and in early June. In the seventeenth century, daffodil essence was obtained by distillation. It is now obtained through extraction with volatile solvents applied to the flowers, a method which produces more essential oil.

For this technique, 1.300 kg of flowers are needed to obtain 1 kg of absolute. One person can pick approximately 105 kg per day.

Its unique fragrance is strong and intoxicating, with subtle hints of apricot and peach combined with notes of leather, olive and a floral and hay background.


The African civet has a sac between its hind legs that secretes a thick yellowish musky fluid formerly used in fine fragrances. Because of the ingredient’s stabilizing properties, it was used to bind together other scents in order to prolong their durability on the skin or an object. Its smell is strong and animal-like in that it recalls excrement. In the seventeenth century, perfumers would masquerade it with flowers, wood, spices and balms.

For centuries, civet oil was one of the main ingredients of animal origin in perfumery. It has since been replaced with a synthetic substitute, which is what we can smell in this sample.


A painted stone relief on one of the buildings depicts the biblical episode of the anointing at Bethany: “Mary brought in a pound of pure nard, a very costly ointment, to anoint the feet of Jesus […] and the house was filled with the scent of this perfume”.

The nard mentioned in the gospel is an aromatic herb from India that is quite expensive. When Jan Brueghel painted this scene, nard used in perfumery originated in Mexico and was grown in Europe. Its current cost can be higher than 10.000 € per kg. Due to its strength and intensity, the essence of nard in a perfume highlights the character of the other floral notes present.


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