‘Perfume & Seduction’ on special exhibit at Hillwood Museum & Gardens

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Perfume bottle: South Staffordshire, England, about 1765. Enamel, copper, gilt copper. Bequest of Marjorie Merriweather Post, 1973
Perfume bottle in the shape of a vase decorated with painted flowers. Girl-in-a-swing Manufactory (English, 1749-59) Soft-paste porcelain, gilt metal. Collection Givaudan, Paris

Scents can be powerful.

Perfume & Seduction, a special exhibition now on view at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens through June 9, 2019, explores the history of perfume bottles and accessories from the early eighteenth through to the early twentieth centuries. Many of these items were used for the lavish bathing and dressing ritual known as “la toilette.”

“Some of the finest pieces from Hillwood’s collection are displayed alongside a selection of eighteenth-century objects from the private European collection of Givaudan, the Swiss manufacturer of flavors, fragrances, and cosmetics, and are on view for the first time in the United States,” said Martine Uzan, Givaudan’s communications manager.

Originally a ritual of court society introduced by King Louis XIV, the term “toilette” derives from the French word for cloth, or toile, and evolved into the lengthy ritual of rising and dressing for which the Sun King became known.

“Adopted by wealthy Parisian men and women as a daily ritual during the mid-eighteenth century, the toilette required a number of luxurious objects,” explained Hillwood Curator, Rebecca Tilles. On display are some of the finest examples of these items, including perfume bottles, gold boxes, and porcelain objects.

Vinaigrette: Switzerland, about 1820 (gold, enamel, pearls) Bequest of Marjorie Merriweather Post, 1973

Perfume & Seduction traces the form and function of perfume bottles, exploring a variety of shapes and materials and the process of making perfume, and examines the evolution of forms during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, highlighted by examples from Hillwood’s and Givaudan’s collection. The exhibition also evaluates other nineteenth and twentieth-century collectors of French eighteenth-century decorative arts, including industrialists in the perfume and fashion industries.

Pampering and primping, in lieu of taking place in a private moment, instead became a performance for a live audience for many. Displays of eighteenth-century French costume and prints help to further illustrate Parisian life and rituals from the period.

Hillwood Exhibition Curator Rebecca Tilles with Givaudan’s Communication Manager Martine Uzan lecture at Hillwood on April 30 will including four samples of historic fragrances

And of course, to bring it home, Hillwood shares some of its owner’s favorite perfumes as well.  Marjorie Merriweather Post herself had favorite scents.  She preferred to wear the fresh, spicy Carnet de Bal (“Dance Card”) launched by Revillon of Paris in 1937, which is presented in a brandy-shaped glass bottle.  For her home, she chose a signature fragrance as well.  A display of Posts’ toilette table, including her dressing gown and accessories, is on display in the mansion. 

As another complement to the exhibition, Hillwood’s Drew Asbury, horticulturist and volunteer manager, created a display of fragrant botanicals in the greenhouse, including plants that are among those used in making perfume.

To learn more about this exhibit and other Hillwood programs, go to the events website at www.hillwoodmuseum.org/events. There are several types of programs associated with the exhibition, including floral workshops and a series of lectures, including one by Givaudan’s Martine Uzan on April 30th called “Lightness and Luxury: Historic Scents and Containers.” The lecture will explore the history of perfume, including scientific and technological evolutions from antiquity to the eighteenth century.

Scent strips of four historic fragrances will be distributed during the presentation to highlight changing tastes.