Bourjois is remembered today primarily as the brand behind affordable but high-quality fragrances like best-selling Evening in Paris (Soir de Paris), launched in 1928. Another pre-war release was Mais Oui (launched in 1938, no longer in production). Mais Oui’s bottle featured a flirtatious fan-shaped cap and a twist of two-sided, pink-and-blue ribbon.
Its advertisements were similarly light-hearted, typically depicting a chic woman peeping out from behind a gloved hand, a hat brim, or a bottle of Mais Oui.
And then there’s this advertisement:
This ad appeared in the December 1971 issue of the Spanish-language magazine Buenhogar (Good Housekeeping). A full range of Mais Oui is represented in the photograph at the lower right: parfum, eau de toilette, scented soaps, even a gift-with-purchase angel figurine.
We’re told in the first line of the text, “Love is present in the delicate fragrance of the finest perfume. . .Mais Oui!”
But what about that illustration on the left? It made me laugh because it’s a detail of a painting that’s anything but appropriate for Mais Oui (or any perfume, really).
The painting is Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1897) by the American artist John White Alexander, now in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
In the 1890s Alexander was working in a style influenced by the international Symbolist movement, favoring long, sinuous lines, dreamlike imagery, beautiful (but doomed or dangerous) women, and subjects that leaned towards the macabre and the fantastical.
I’ll turn things over to curator Elliott Bostwick Davis here. She notes that Alexander’s source material for this work was a poem by one of the English Romantics:
“‘Isabella, or The Pot of Basil’ was a poem written in 1820 by the English poet John Keats, who borrowed his narrative from the Italian Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio. Isabella was a Florentine merchant’s beautiful daughter whose ambitious brothers disapproved of her romance with the handsome but humbly born Lorenzo, their father’s business manager. The brothers murdered Lorenzo and told their sister that he had traveled abroad. The distraught Isabella began to decline, wasting away from grief and sadness. She saw the crime in a dream and then went to find her lover’s body in the forest. Taking Lorenzo’s head, she bathed it with her tears and finally hid it in a pot in which she planted sweet basil, a plant associated with lovers.” (Adapted from Davis et al., American Painting, Boston, 2003)
Here’s a stanza from Keats’s poem:
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.
Got that? Isabella is grieving 24/7 for her lover Lorenzo, who was killed by her brothers, while she cries over the flowerpot IN WHICH SHE PLANTED HIS SEVERED HEAD.
Who thought this image would be the perfect visual accompaniment to Bourjois’s Mais Oui, “a fragrance made in honor of love and the woman who receives it”? Did anyone at the ad agency or Bourjois question this choice? Apparently not.
Alexander was one of many artists who painted their own interpretations of Isabella’s tale in the late 1800s — a few others are John William Waterhouse, William Holman Hunt, W. J. Neatby, Edward Reginald Frampton and Joseph Severn. I’ll leave you to search those on your own, if you’re curious.