Transcript Smelling Time Episode 2

Caro Verbeek We might think that museums of visual art are all about seeing, but the stories and objects are actually part of a much more sensory reality and sometimes even about something invisible, and that is smell. So therefore, today we’ll take a virtual tour through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. And instead of just paying attention to what is visible, we will also pay attention to what a story depicted on a certain painting might have smelled like. So we’ll go on an aromatic odyssey.

We are now heading to the Department of 19th Century Art to find out more about the largest painting in the collection. The Battle of Waterloo by Pieneman, finished in 1824. It is actually five meters high and eight meters in width. Instead of just describing it, we’ll try to relate to this painting through the sense of smell and since we cannot actually smell it, I’ll try to describe it so you can imagine it, and I’ll help you as well as I can. Depicted are several victorious and heroic men on horses set against the background of thousands of soldiers depicting different stages of the battle, the victorious Wellington with his shiny leather boots takes center stage. The top half of the painting is filled with dark clouds, giving an indication of the harsh weather conditions on that fateful summer day. In the foreground, we see wounded soldiers lying on the floor. A lonely cannonball stuck in a muddy puddle tells the story of Napoleon’s defeat. He had actually hoped that his artillery would lead him to victory, but the mud prevented the cannonballs from reaching their destinations.

A sense that was especially composed for this painting by senior nose Birgit Sijbrands from IFF reflects many of the invisible elements of this story. The weather, the damp earth and grass, gunpowder, the sweaty horses and men, there’s even the smell of anxiety expressed most realistically in the eyes of the horses. Those are the only ones that really display fear. And since human beings are capable of smelling emotions, in the past too, this smell can convey a lot of discomfort, much more than the painting itself does, actually.

One element present during the battle is not directly relatable to the painting. Napoleon, every day and also on the day of his defeat, wore his favorite perfume during the battle. This perfume was called Aqua Mirabilis and it was made by Farina. Napoleon used it to mask the evil smells of war. Soldiers actually wrote about these horrific smells much more often than about their wounds. And another reason for the use of this scent during war, was to stay healthy, because foul smells were thought to cause diseases. Think of terms such as ‘malaria’, which literally means bad air. Napoleon’s perfume was used in almost every war since by many soldiers and for the very same reasons.

And you all know it very well too, because it is now known as 4711 Eau de Cologne: the very same fragrance used by our mothers, grandmothers or great grandmothers. For example, on handkerchiefs and nowadays also in planes on those wet handkerchiefs. So this means that even though a smell stays the same for hundreds of years, our associations can drastically change. And remember, you see more when you smell. This was Caro Verbeek, curator and researcher, art and scent historian and I research and recreate Lost Smells. 

The Smelling Time podcast was created for the podcast festival in 2020, by the Dutch Podcastnetwerk and a scent historian Caro Verbeek. With help from International Flavors and Fragrances who provided the smells and Hay Kraanen programmed, not composed, the tune. The other episodes can be found at