Named after the 1881 novel ‘The Portrait of A Lady’ by author Henry James, the perfume surely must have raised questions as to the association with the novel’s heroine, Isabel Archer. What would be the connection? What would this American heiress smell of? Would Portrait of A Lady (Frédéric Malle, 2010) smell of her? This left me pondering.
Considering the rigorous tenets of a proper Victorian lady, Isabel Archer would eschew the sensual oriental drama of Portrait of A Lady. Opulent perfumes were the embodiment of vulgarity and impropriety, regardless of the social standing of the person who wore it, however high the station. Even Queen Victoria, on her 1855 state visit to Paris, was overtly criticized by Le Messager des Modes for her choice of perfume that emitted a ‘distasteful hint of musk’, despite her irreproachable stature. Such strong fragrances were the opposite of ‘good taste’. Meanwhile, lavender, violet, and eaux de cologne would be more likely; their representation of discretion, modesty, and hygiene was never in doubt.
Portrait of A Lady is as far from Victorian propriety as possible. It is a sweeping force of opulent rose set in an oriental frame. The moment I sprayed it, I decided that I could no longer be bothered to make the connection with Isabel Archer. All my thoughts before were swept away.
Dollops of hot pepper act as a prelude to the oriental theme along with clove and cinnamon. Its glaring brightness makes a strong introductory statement. The hot cloves and cinnamon remain as a lasting bright accent throughout the development.
The rose of Portrait of A Lady is sublime. It has a honeyed, raspberry-confit facet that lends an opulent curve to the composition. This decadent jammy richness also tells plenty about the quality that goes into the juice. It lasts through to the dry down. Its dense and rich character blankets the dark oriental notes that begin to emerge.
Much of the oriental flair comes from patchouli, incense, and musk. The rich woody notes of patchouli are interspersed with strong resinous accents of incense. Its interplay is rounded by plenty of musks. and creamy softness of sandalwood. A crisp ambery accent sets a warm sensual tone to this oriental recipe.
The oriental rose of Portrait of A Lady is not a novel idea, but the quality and peerless execution by perfumer Dominique Ropion give it character and performance that stand out. Sterling ingredients are used with such lavish hands that the resulting richness already marks the rose with a distinctive note. The spicy contrast also lasts until the finish. The pairing of an opulent, fruity rose with rich woods and incense create a dark, dramatic accord. It lasts for days, and can sometimes come back on laundered clothes. A single spray is highly recommended, and even then, one is certain to leave a trail. That being said, this is the kind of perfume to wear with confidence. Its mysterious whirlwind may turn heads and draw questions.
Sources: ocado.com, sundaytimes.co.uk, gearpatrol.org
- The Force of Fashion in Politics and Society: Global Perspectives from Early Modern to Contemporary Times, p. 97-113.
- Le miasme et la jonquille, p. 323