Between Life & Death (Scent the Scene)

In this series, we examine aspects of death and bereavement through art, olfaction, and imaginative thinking. Feel free to follow along at home and leave your take on this scented death meditation below. 

This Week’s Muse

The Genius of France Between Liberty and Death, Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1795


Even though the Rocco and then the Neoclassical styles were in full force during his career, Regnault never completely freed himself of the Baroque ideals on proportion, iconography and antiquity, making his paintings a bit dated in his lifetime. This one was a unique allegory, however. Painted near the end of The French Revolution and just before the rise of Napoleon, this work expresses the anxiety, hope, and fear of many intellectuals of the time. Regnault, having lived through the idyllic rhetoric of the pre-Revolution as well as the bloody chaos that followed, saw the greatness of France balancing between true liberty and utter destruction.

It is also telling that the sunlit Liberty here is not the bare-breasted fighting Marianne of Eugène Delacroix. Instead, she is a physically passive muse appealing, not to the citizenry, but to the viewer through the authority of antiquity by way of the Phrygian cap, Scales, and Fasces. Likewise, shadowy Death is a thoroughly Medieval representation with his hooded robe and scythe; poised to crown Genius with a dead laurel crown. Death is lower in the painting, in a casual repose, giving the feeling of sinking atrophy.  The tip of Death’s scythe is a hair’s breath away from touching Genius’ arm. All while Genius, outstretched in an almost Christ-like pose, pleads with the audience to choose wisely.

Scent the Scene

Regnault’s symmetrical allegory lends well to creating a scent meditation. Death will be our base, but it needs to be Medieval Death a sense of sinking back into darkness. I’d say, Cedar, Shitake Mushrooms, Oakmoss, and Seaweed to give the feeling of a rotting damp log.

Our heart is Genius, beautiful but fragile. Genius needs to smell lovely but trembling. I’m thinking French Lavander, Iris, and Saffron with a touch of Suede to give the feeling of beautiful, quivering skin.

For Liberty something shining and bright with a nod to antiquity. I would say Roman CalumusPomegranate, Myrtle, Mastic, and Cypress with the lightest touch of Fatty Lanolin.

That’s how I smell it, but what about you? How would you scent Death, Liberty, and Genius? What do you think Regnault was trying to say in this painting? Leave your comments below. Don’t forget to subscribe to the D/S and never miss a scene.