François Boucher, La Toilette, 1742, oil on canvas, 52.5 x 66.5 cm,  Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Inv. no. 58 (1967.4).
Potpourri (pot-pourri)
19th October 2023
by Clara May
Created at:
19th October 2023
Creator:
Clara May
Citation:
[click to copy]
François Boucher, La Toilette, 1742, oil on canvas, 52.5 x 66.5 cm,  Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Inv. no. 58 (1967.4).
Objects

The French term "pot-pourri" can be heard in many languages, but its origins seem to date back to sixteenth century Spain, to a stew-like dish known as "olla podrida". This recipe – in which a variety of ingredients are simmered for a long time so that they decompose – evokes the idea of a pot whose contents have rotted, i.e. whose flesh has softened. The term "pot-pourri" first appeared in French literature in 1564 in Rabelais's Cinquième livre, in reference to the same stew, the expression of which was translated into French (Furetière 1690, "pot"). Then, in 1711, associated with the field of music, the expression "pot-poury" was used to describe a sequence of fragments of airs, before finally making its appearance in the field of olfaction to describe a fragrant mixture with multiple ingredients. Although the term originated in Spanish, it is the French meaning which has remained and been adopted by other European languages: perhaps out of practical use, "pot-pourri" or "potpourri" - with a few spelling variations – came to describe the same device in English, German, Italian and even Spanish. Finally, through a lexical shift, "pot-pourri" has become a "pot" again, with the expression describing both the contents and the container (Trésor de la Langue Française, "pot-pourri"). The potpourri vase is therefore a container with a simple design - a body, a lid and openings - containing and diffusing this particular fragrance.

If the term has prevailed in its French form, it is perhaps due to the great enthusiasm this type of vase was met with in France from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. Fear of miasmas and of the transmission of disease through pestilence encouraged the French aristocracy to protect themselves against such a threat. Perfume burners, cassolettes and potpourri vases were thus subsequently added to interior spaces for prophylactic purposes. However, the quest for high and healthier living standards gradually led to the emergence of an interest in the pleasure that a delicate fragrance could provide (Coquery 1998, 19 / Elias 1974, 12 / Corbin 2008, 237 / Dejean 2009). At that time in France, particularly in interior settings, the notion of pleasure became an important issue, as a result there was a stark increase in the demand for fragrance diffusers with added decorative value.

Odeuropa Smell Explorer
Smells

But if potpourri was supposed to improve the smell of indoor spaces, what did these places otherwise devoid of perfume smell like? It turns out that in the eighteenth century, Paris as well as Versailles had a heavy and, it seems, rather unpleasant olfactory atmosphere. Louis-Sébastien Mercier's description in Tableau de Paris (1782) speaks for itself:

Narrow, poorly-penetrated streets, houses that are too high and interrupt the free flow of air, butchers' shops, fishmongers' shops, sewers and cemeteries all contribute to corrupting the atmosphere, filling it with impure particles and making the enclosed air heavy and malignant. [...] The smell of corpses can be felt in almost every church [...] sepulchral exhalations continue to poison the faithful. [...] Apart from the cemeteries, is it any wonder that the air is stale? The houses stink and the inhabitants are constantly bothered. Everyone has shops of corruption in their homes; a foul vapour exhales from this multitude of cesspools. [...] O superb city! how many disgusting horrors are hidden within your walls!(Mercier 1782, 126-30). (« Des rues étroites & mal percées, des maisons trop hautes & qui interrompent la libre circulation de l’air, des boucheries, des poissonneries, des égouts, des cimetières, font que l’athmosphère se corrompt, se charge de particules impures, & que cet air renfermé devient pesant & d’une influence maligne. […] L’odeur cadavéreuse se fait sentir dans presque toutes les églises […] les exhalaisons sépulcrales continuent à empoisonner les fidèles. […] Indépendamment des cimetières, faut-il s’étonner que l’air soit vicié ? Les maisons sont puantes, & les habitans perpétuellement incommodés. Chacun a dans sa maison des magasins de corruption ; il s’exhale une vapeur infecte de cette multitude de fosses d’aisance. […] O superbe ville ! que d’horreurs dégoûtantes sont cachées dans tes murailles ! »)

If the city of Paris oozed putrid effluvia, the same can be said of Versailles – the social theatre of the French elite. La Morandière's account is equally evocative: 

The park, the gardens, even the château itself stir the heart with their foul odours. The passageways, courtyards, buildings and corridors are filled with urine and faecal matter; at the foot of the ministers' wing, a butcher bleeds and roasts his pigs every morning; the Avenue de Saint-Cloud is covered with stagnant water and dead cats. (La Morandière 1764, quoted by Dr Cabanes A., Mœurs intimes du passé, vol. 1, Geneva: Farnot, 1976. Paris, 1908, 382) (« Le parc, les jardins, le château même font soulever le cœur par leurs mauvaises odeurs. Les passages de communication, les cours, les bâtiments, les corridors sont remplis d’urine et de matière fécale ; au pied même de l’aile des ministres, un charcutier saigne et grille ses porcs tous les matins ; l’avenue de Saint-Cloud est couverte d’eaux croupissantes et de chats morts. »)

The olfactory environment in which potpourri vases were used was so intensely malodorous that perfumers developed perfume compositions according to precise recipes in order to fight and suppress any foul emanations. At the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, the use of the "animal trio" – ambergris, civet and musk – was still firmly established in perfume preparations, but was gradually abandoned in favour of lighter scents (Corbin 2008, 102 / Wicky 2019, 269). The bestial source of these scents and their raw excremental olfactory character were seen as disgusting (De Feydeau 2004, 207) and contrary to the civilising ambition of perfume – a product of luxury emphasizing the French social elite’s identity and higher social rank (Elias 1985, 40). 

Fundamentally aromatic, the potpourri blend was not made up of the "animal trio". Floral, spicy, herbaceous and even fruity, it was prepared with anticipation, as it could only be used after a certain maceration time – that is the time necessary for the composition to "rot". The recipe consisted of a combination of aromatic herbs (rosemary, savory, bay leaf, basil, mint, thyme, sage, lemon balm, marjoram, etc.), flowers (lavender, chamomile, jasmine, rose, etc.), citrus fruits (lemon, citron, etc.), spices (cloves, cinnamon), fragrant shrubs such as myrtle - whose leaves, used for their scent, were also used as ornaments on potpourri vases - and incense (Le Parfumeur royal 1761, 199-203). This mixture, placed in a terrine, was covered with salt to begin the maceration and fermentation process - the introduction of salts increased the fragrant power of the aromatics (Fargeon 1801, 5). Stirred from time to time so as not to let one scent corrupt all the others, the potpourri was then placed in vases "with a wide belly & narrower opening, of porcelain or fayance, whose lid is pierced with several holes to let the perfume exhale into the Appartemens" (« à large ventre & plus étroits d’ouverture, de porcelaine ou de fayance, dont le couvercle est percé de plusieurs trous pour en laisser exhaler le parfum dans les Appartemens ») (Le Parfumeur royal 1761, 202), then the mixture was further sprayed with hydrolats (lemon balm hydrolat, essence of citron or bergamot). Once made and "rotted", the mixture gave off a very powerful fragrance, which was indeed supposed to last "ten or twelve years" if one took the trouble to add pieces of lemon peel and aromatic essences to it every year (Le Parfumeur royal 1761, 202).

Places

The potpourri was very effective in the French elite’s race for distinction : it had a dual agency, both visual and olfactory. While it is not easy to pinpoint with certainty the spaces where potpourri vases were placed, some sources point them out sometimes in bedrooms, bathrooms or wardrobes (Courajod 1873 [Duvaux 1748-1758], 137 / Savill 1988, 27), sometimes in undefined rooms. In this respect, painted visual sources – although fictitious and therefore to be apprehended with caution – nevertheless provide us with an idea of the kind of environment in which these objects were likely presented. François Boucher's painting La Toilette (1742), for example, depicts interiors that are more private spaces (Le Camus de Mézières 1780 / Dejean 2009, 45). 

 

François Boucher, La Toilette, 1742, oil on canvas, 52.5 x 66.5 cm, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Inv. no. 58 (1967.4).

 

In this representation, the potpourri vase can be interpreted as sign of a merchant-mercier’s intervention in the ornamentation of said place: from a simple vase with a lid, the merchant was able to adapt its use to a potpourri device by mounting this porcelain on gilded bronze (Coquery 1998, 21, 87). This type of "repurposed" potpourri, based on a pre-existing vase – is more a product of the time when porcelain was imported from elsewhere – China in particular (Ennès 1997, 16).
Mounted Lidded Bowl, China; created Paris, France, porcelain about 1720; mounts about 1745–1749. Hard-paste porcelain; colored enamel decoration; gilt bronze mounts, object: 40 × 38.1 cm (15 3/4 × 15 in.). Getty Center, Museum South Pavilion, Gallery S109


When Europe began producing porcelain in the eighteenth century, potpourri vases gradually took on increasingly varied shapes, requiring a certain technical virtuosity (Faÿ-Hallé 2013, 30 / Millet 2015, 39), sometimes even assuming other functions than those initially intended for these items, such as candelabra or bulb vase (May 2021). 

As a small object, the potpourri vase is part of a mobile decorative system within interiors: one part of the setting was fixed (mantels, tables, consoles, chests of drawers, upholstered furniture, etc.), whereas another part was meant to add visual "complications" so as to accentuate the character of the whole set. Clocks, figurines, candelabras, vases and other knick-knacks of all kinds were placed here and there to entertain the viewer's eye. Placed on the flat surfaces of consoles and mantels (Savill 1988, 24), decorative garnitures gave rhythm to the interiors (Hellman 2006, 419): made up of three or five objects, they incorporated the potpourri vases, sometimes combining them with other objects or with other potpourri vases, according to criteria such as harmony and regularity (Hellman 2006, 139).

Charles-Nicolas Dodin, Pair of Vases (pot-pourri à bobèches),
Sèvres, France, 1760, soft paste porcelain, pink and green ground colors, polychrome enamel decoration and gilding. Object: 24.9 × 14.4 × 9.4 cm. Getty Center, Museum South Pavilion, South Hall,
75.DE.65.

Practices

Once placed in aristocratic spaces, potpourri vases were thus able to fulfil their perfuming function, while making a visual contribution to their refined settings. As awareness of luxury production grew in eighteenth-century France, the question of progress was introduced: luxury, by virtue of what it contained (techniques, know-how, materials, etc.), could serve to enhance the wealth of the monarchy (Coquery 1998, 21). Through their tastes and desires, the Parisian elite not only set the fashion trends for foreign nations, but also called on craftsmen and manufacturers (Vigarello 1985, 123-24). For French arts and crafts: the century thus became one of emergence and success (Coquery 2000, 42 / Millet 2015, 38 / De Bellaigue 1980, 666-82). The refinement of Parisian aristocratic interiors thus developed in echo to this new momentum in artistic production, as aristocratic society had to "maintain its position" by displaying its luxurious living-standards (Coquery 2000, 15, 19). As always with nobility, it was all about racing for distinction, using pomp as a means to rise to power, together with a never-ending state of self-performance were originality was essential to outshine other courtiers (Starobinski 1987, 14).

If potpourri vases find so naturally their place in sumptuous Parisian decors, it was no doubt because of the luxury they both contained and diffused. Indeed, because of its ineffable and ephemeral nature, perfume was the antithesis of any bourgeois hoarding and, as such allowed the assertion of aristocratic rank to be reinforced (Corbin 2008, 208 / Vigarello 1985, 160-61). Thus, while the refined scent prepared by the perfumer made reference to aristocratic society, the stench kept stigmatising the working classes, expressing otherness (Tullett 2019, 2 / Muchembled 2017, 225): the social elite sought to distinguish itself from the "savage" thanks to its sense of smell and its delicate scent (Wicky 2019, 280 / De Feydeau 2004, 207). Elevated to the rank of luxury product, perfume thus became the essence of the least visual yet most voluptuous aristocratic ostentation. On the subject of the voluptuous nature of scent and the sense of smell, Denis Diderot's Lettre sur les sourds et les muets (1751) contains a surprising statement - given the debates on the hierarchy of senses at the time - but one that is particularly interesting for our purpose:

[...] I found that, of all the senses, the eye was the most superficial; the ear, the most proud; the sense of smell, the most voluptuous; taste, the most superstitious and fickle; touch, the most profound and the most philosophical (Diderot 1751, 422). (« […] je trouvai que, de tous les sens, l’œil était le plus superficiel ; l’oreille, le plus orgueilleux ; l’odorat, le plus voluptueux ; le goût, le plus superstitieux et le plus inconstant ; le toucher, le plus profond et le plus philosophe »)

Surprisingly, Denis Diderot devalues the sense of sight – which have otherwise been considered noble and intellectual since Antiquity - and instead appears to value the sense of smell by describing it as "voluptuous". The association of the sense of smell with a pleasure that animates the body and the mind, abolishes the lowly and animal nature of this sense – making it equivalent or even superior to sight. This may therefore explain the prestigious place held by perfume among the French aristocracy of the period: as it became a "necessary" expense, the aristocrat's sense of belonging to his/her class was also revealed by his/her pleasing scent and that of his/her personal environment (Tullett 2019, 189).

Feelings and Noses

While England underwent a hygienic revolution in the eighteenth century, France remained convinced that scent was an indicator of disease for a while longer (Tullett 2019, 5). Given that air and smell had not yet been dissociated, it was customary to leave windows closed and to perfume flats to create a contrast between the pleasant smells inside and the putrid miasma of the outside (Muchembled 2017, 229 / Corbin 2008, 237). The potpourri vase was therefore used above all for its prophylactic purposes: like an instrument of cleanliness, its function was to protect and clear the stale air of interiors by correcting its composition (Vigarello 1985, 109-110). Above all, potpourri conferred a feeling of security to those who smell it, the sweet fragrance attesting, according to the beliefs of the time, to the eradication of health threats.

But alongside this feeling of protection, another feeling gradually emerged: pleasure. Indeed, the Parisian aristocracy gradually began to revel in the new medicinal fragrances, so that perfume, going beyond the realm of prophylaxis, took on an additional role: that of delighting the nose and providing pleasure (Hornot 1764, 458). As a result, when placed in a decorative setting, the appeal of the potpourri vase became double as it was appreciated as much for its scent as its ornamental character. The latter should indeed not be overlooked because, unlike the cassolette and the perfume burner, the potpourri vase was more adorned: sometimes mounted on gilded bronze, or made from enamelled, gilded and painted porcelain. In other terms, the potpourri vase was decorated to fit in with the wider decor of both the garniture and the room in which it belonged (De Rochebrune 2012, 90-93). Featuring floral motifs or more complex scenes, the reserves of certain potpourri vases gave a significant amount of space to views of a verdant and idealized nature. Sometimes featuring picturesque, historical or even mythological scenes (Faÿ-Hallé 2013, 61), these vases provided a certain mental escape for those who observed them (Lee 2017 / De Feydeau 2004, 32). Associated with nature, flowers and the graceful decorations painted on these objects, the perfume they diffused would then contribute to this atmosphere of escape, where the spectator could "wander" away from the polluted urban world through the contemplation of this object’s embellishment. Therefore, the potpourri vase is to be regarded as both a visually and olfactory refined device. It is also endowed with a performative role (Hellman 1999, 417), as it helps appeal to its users’s senses, acting as a powerful marker of social elevation (Le Guérer 1999, 133), and thus, influencing the elite’s behaviour(Hellman 2006, 436).

Charles-Nicolas Dodin, Pair of Vases (pot-pourri à bobèches),
Sèvres, France, 1760, soft paste porcelain, pink and green ground colors, polychrome enamel decoration and gilding. Object: 24.9 × 14.4 × 9.4 cm. Getty Center, Museum South Pavilion, South Hall, 75.DE.11.

The recipe for potpourri can be found in several eighteenth-century French perfumery treatises. The treatise by Le Parfumeur royal (1761) is unique in that the recipe for potpourri is "solely for the climate of Paris and its surroundings" (« uniquement pour le climat de Paris & ses environs ») (Le Parfumeur royal 1761, 202), which suggests that potpourri may have been an even more Parisian phenomenon than we might first have thought.

As for its preparation, little information is available. The treatises seem to be intended not only for perfumers, but also for anyone interested in this art and know-how. It therefore seems likely that the potpourri mixture could have been provided by a perfumer, just as it seems possible that the preparation could have been made at home, perhaps even "For the entertainment of the Nobility" (« Pour le divertissement de la Noblesse »), as Simon Barbe suggests when speaking of the recipients of his treatise (Barbe 1696, title page). Thus endowed with a potentially playful dimension, the potpourri may have been the ambassador of a pleasure that went beyond the framework of interior decoration, and become part of the eighteenth-century French aristocracy’s recreational activities. By stimulating the senses and turning scent into an integral part of the social elite’s lives, potpourri seems to have gradually become a source of pleasure.

The name "potpourri" does not do justice to either its olfactory content, or its decorative, sanitary, fragrant and entertaining functions. In fact the term refers to its own fabrication: while "pot" refers to vases of highly prized refinement and elegance, "pourri" points to the process undergone by its perfumed content, which has to macerate and decompose in order to reveal all its splendid olfactory potential. In the end, just as the sweet fragrance they diffused emanated from an altered substance, the inconvenient and harmful olfactory context of eighteenth-century France was definitively responsible for the emergence of an object of dazzling delicacy and subtlety.

Creator:
Clara May
Citation:
Clara May, “Potpourri (pot-pourri),” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed June 15, 2024, https://encyclopedia.odeuropa.eu/items/show/29.
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