Perfume and Art: Audrey Flack, “Jolie Madame” (1973)


I’ve never had a chance to do any “official” research on Audrey Flack’s work, but I’ve been a fan of her photorealist still-life paintings for a long time. Here’s one titled Jolie Madame, dated 1973. (It belongs to the National Gallery of Australia.)

Flack (b. 1931) is known for her contemporary reinterpretations of vanitas images—still-life compositions that symbolically evoke mortality and the “vanity” of earthly pleasures…

Vanitas paintings (very popular in 17th-century Netherlands!) often depicted objects like skulls and hourglasses combined with beautiful yet temporary things such as fruit, flowers, and butterflies. These arrangements—often painted in a highly illusionistic style—were meant to serve as reminders that material goods are a mere distraction and that our lives are fleeting.


Here’s an example of a traditional vanitas: Adrian van Utrecht’s Still Life with a Bouquet and a Skull, dated 1642. (It now belongs to the private collector Richard Harris.)

For her own painting Jolie Madame, Flack gathered similar items: flowers on the verge of wilting…costly vessels made from fine, fragile materials…strings of pearls…a gold pocket-watch. She also includes the item that gives her painting its name: a bottle of Balmain’s Jolie Madame Eau de Toilette.

Jolie Madame is a cult favorite among vintage-perfume lovers: it’s a bold, almost androgynous mix of green notes, violet, and leather. (Check out Angela’s review on Now Smell This for more details!) This fragrance was launched in 1953, but it was certainly still being sold in the early 1970s.

Here’s an advertisement dated 1973, the same year as Flack’s painting. Balmain was obviously marketing Jolie Madame as a throwback to classic glamour:

Flack hit her stride professionally at a time when the modern feminist movement was in full swing, and her art often evokes themes of female identity. The title Jolie Madame translates roughly as “pretty woman,” and the lush red rose and sparkling jewelry are items that we associate with conventionalized ideas of romance and feminine beauty.

I find it interesting that Flack chose to show the bottle of Jolie Madame half-empty (or half-full?). Perfume, of course, is one of the most ephemeral items we can own: it’s invisible when used, and designed to evaporate…the most fleeting of pleasures. I can understand why she included perfume bottles in several of her vanitas works.

One comment

  1. Great article. Flack depicts a curved bottle rather than the squared one in the 1970s advert…any ideas what vintage her bottle is? Just curious ( adds another time dimension, in an obscure way). The NGA is one of my favourite galleries, too.


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