July 2013: Perfume Fountain

/ Collections - Spotlight on the Collection

Perfume Fountain. Paris, France, about 1710. Porcelain with underglaze blue enamel decoration and gilt bronze. 17 1/4 × 10 inches. The Eugenia Woodward Hitt Collection, 1991.22a-b.
Perfume Fountain. Paris, France, about 1710. Porcelain with underglaze blue enamel decoration and gilt bronze. 17 1/4 × 10 inches. The Eugenia Woodward Hitt Collection, 1991.22a-b.
Perfume Fountain, French, about 1710

Porcelain, a ceramic material first made in China, was a staple of trade between Europe and East Asia. Though the present in Europe in the early 17th century, King Louis XIV of France’s affinity for porcelain made it an important facet of French décor. In the mid-17th century, a royal manufactory was established in France, though trade with East Asia continued through the 18th century since French manufactories could not make porcelain of the same quality and durability as China without kaolin, a type of clay.

The Museum’s Perfume Fountain was made in Paris from three different pieces of imported 17th century porcelain. Due to the fragility of the material, imported wares often arrived damaged; European artisans salvaged or repurposed usable pieces. This process of appropriation removed the objects from their original context, prizing them as “exotic” and purely decorative. The Museum’s Perfume Fountain, however, took on a new, uniquely French function upon its reconstruction: the dispensing of perfume.

Fountains were one of many types of perfume dispensers found in the homes of the upper class, but they were by no means the most common. They were likely commissioned by a Parisian marchand-mercier (a merchant-entrepreneur who worked as an antiques dealer and interior decorator) for a particular client. The fountain would likely be filled with hot, fragrant water which could be dispensed through gilt-bronze spigots to freshen a room. Gilt-bronze additions to East Asian porcelain often served a function beyond their aesthetic value; for example, cassolettes (incense burners) and pots-pourris often included perforated gilt-bronze necks or covers through which evaporated perfume could escape.

Perfume dispensers played an important role in hygiene of 17th- and 18th-century France. During this time, it was widely thought that illness was caused by “malignancy of the atmosphere,” or unpleasant scents; it was believed that perfume could improve the atmosphere to prevent even the most devastating diseases. Both perfumery and common hygiene incorporated aspects of alchemy, philosophy, and medicine, and recipe books for homemade perfumes and cosmetics became a booming industry. One such book, The Toilet of Flora (available in the Museum’s Clarence B. Hanson, Jr. Library) contains recipes for cosmetics such as hair dyes, skin cleansers, and weight-loss potions alongside “An excellent Preservative Balsam against the Plague,” which offers protection against the deadly disease by means of overpowering its stench.

—Katherine Ladd and Tyler Pratt, Education-Visitor Engagement Interns 2013

Join the Conversation!

In many ways, the hygiene of 17thcentury France is not so different from today; in a chapter on the bathroom in Seventeenth-century interior decoration in England, France, and Holland (available in the Museum’s Clarence B. Hanson, Jr. Library), Peter Thornton argues that the only drastic difference between then and now is that we have running water. How do you see scent functioning in your day-to-day life? How large a role does smell play in modern hygiene? Look for the aforementioned books in the Museum’s library, explore the following articles, and join the conversation!

“Where Everything Smells Bad,” New York Times, March 6, 2013

“Fragrances as Art, Displayed Squirt by Squirt,” New York Times, November 15, 2012

“The Great Unwashed,” New York Times, October 31, 2010

“All About/Deodorants; The Success of Sweet Smell,” New York Times, August 12, 1990