From the February/March 2014 Issue:

Art & Antiques: Pleasing Potpourri

    Writer: Leslie Gilbert Elman |

Distinctive vases designed to hold fragrant concoctions still delight the senses

Those of us who are fascinated by times past can imagine how things must have looked, sounded and even tasted centuries ago. What’s harder to sense is the way things must have smelled in, say, eighteenth-century France. We do know—personal hygiene being what it was—things probably smelled pretty awful. Yet from such unpleasantness, something beautiful emerged: the potpourri vase.

The idea of perfuming the air with essential oils, dried flowers and herbs was not new. Incense had been used for thousands of years, and medieval women were known to scatter stalks of dried rue, sweet woodruff, rosemary and fennel around their homes to freshen the air and to keep away bugs and vermin. But sometime around the late 1600s or early 1700s, the floral mixture we’ve come to know as potpourri became fashionable in the homes of the well-to-do; no longer merely strewn around but presented in ornate vases designed specifically for the purpose.

Article Photo
enlarge | Made by the Chelsea Porcelain Factory around 1761, this soft-paste porcelain potpourri vase is a fine example of flamboyant Rococo style. The latticework top allowed the fragrance of the potpourri to diffuse into the room. This vase is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The “Rotten Pot”
The Oxford English Dictionary says the word “potpourri” (or pot-pourri) came into general usage in the early seventeenth century as the name of a stew made from different kinds of meat. In French, it translates unappetizingly as “rotten pot,” but potpourri took on a broader meaning and lost whatever “rotten” connotation it had. Instead, it defined something spontaneous and whimsical that blended a little of this and a little of that into an original and pleasing creation.

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, who you know better as Madame de Pompadour, was the person most responsible for making potpourri popular in eighteenth-century France. A trendsetter long before she became the “official mistress” of King Louis XV in 1745, Madame de Pompadour rarely encountered a luxury she didn’t adore or an ornament she didn’t long to possess. Her rooms at Versailles were filled with gilded objects and the air was perfumed with potpourri.

Under her patronage, the Sèvres porcelain works became known throughout the world for its elegance and artistry. The firm’s signature pink porcelain was named rose de Pompadour in her honor, and artistic director Jean-Claude Duplessis designed elaborate vases called pots-pourri Pompadour with her in mind.

Far from being “rotten pots,” pots-pourri Pompadour were Rococo confections of fancy painting and curlicues with tops that were decoratively pierced to allow the potpourri fragrance to waft into a room. (A pink, boat-shaped Sèvres creation that’s now in the collection of the Louvre in Paris was one of several pots-pourri arranged on the mantel in Madame de Pompadour’s bedroom.)

Article Photo
enlarge | Crafting the delicate fretwork lid of this 4-inch-tall pot­pourri vase required the skill of a master. In this case, silversmith Willem Carel van Meurs of Zutphen in the Nether­lands, who made this piece around 1780. It was offered for sale at TEFAF, the European Fine Art and Antiques Fair, by Dutch dealer John Endlich. Courtesy of John Endlich Antiquairs
The Sweet Scent Lingers
Like all good ideas, the use of potpourri—and the desire for attractive potpourri vases—spread throughout Europe and to North America. Soft-paste porcelain manufactories in Germany and England produced Rococo potpourri vases that rivalled anything the French had to offer. In the Netherlands, the preference was for potpourri vases crafted from silver to demonstrate the owner’s wealth and refined sensibilities.

Over time, fashions changed and fanciful Rococo gave way to more understated styles, yet the passion for potpourri remained strong. Vessels to hold it were produced well into the twentieth century. So while a true Sèvres pot-pourri from Madame de Pompadour’s day would sell for tens of thousands and a Dutch silver creation made in 1752 sold at auction for more than $50,000 last year, you can find antique potpourri vases from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries offered by reputable antiques dealers and auction houses for a few hundred dollars. If you own one, display it on a mantel or bedside table and fill it with potpourri as fashionable ladies used to do.

Making potpourri itself tended to be a woman’s province and, particularly in the nineteenth century, ladies’ magazines regularly published tips for the production and use of potpourri. This was no idle pastime. Production started in June with the gathering of fresh rose blossoms that were quickly and carefully dried then blended with all manner of scented things: lavender, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, musk, ginger root and oils of rose geranium, lemon verbena, violet or jasmine. The mixture was left to cure for several weeks then gently sprinkled into appropriate containers.

As an article in The Decorator and Furnisher from 1896 explained: “The result will be a delicate blending of fragrances, dream-laden and suggestive, with the rose dominating all, just as in a musical harmony one triumphant note sings itself through all the braided rhythm of melody. And so my lady’s potpourri diffuses itself in ethereal essence through her rooms, evasive, undefined, yet haunting every nook and corner, until the rose seems a portion of her own refined yet distinct individuality.”

Madame de Pompadour couldn’t have described it more romantically.

Leslie Gilbert Elman writes about antiques and other subjects for Design NJ.