Perfume Shrine: Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady: fragrance review

 Portrait of a Lady in the line Editions des Parfums Frederic Malle is named after the homonymous novel by Henry James from 1881; a romantic detail which never fails to stir the imagination as related to fragrance. The novel tells the story of Isabel Archer, a young American heiress who “affronts her destiny”. Dealing with one of James’ recurrent themes, an American in Europe (as in Wings of the Dove), and the differences between the two cultures, The Portrait of a Lady is a tale of the conspiracy to separate Isabel from her fortune, and subsequently  the value of autonomy and accountability.


The olfactory inspiration however has little to do with ladies, and lots to do with the burgeoning trend, set years before with Serge Lutens opening Les Salons de Palais Royal (find the perfume addresses of Paris here), of Arabian-inspired perfumery. Portrait of a Lady, by perfumer Dominique Ropion, deals with a rose note and spices in a new, contemporary way that varies between the oriental and chypre theme with patchouli, natural and intense, dominating the heart of the composition.

It is interesting to compare and contrast two rose-centric fragrances in the Malle collection, Portrait of a Lady and Une Rose. The Damascus rose makes itself felt in the former, while Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Une Rose, created by Edouard Flechier, contains a record 1% of the expensive absolute of the Rose de Mai, a more crystalline, more citrusy variant, which is hereby allied to a chord smelling like truffles to give it an earthy, fleshy quality.

Rose and patchouli is a classic combination, memorized by every amateur perfumer like a mantra, and used by every professional one, revered for the ability of the latter essence to make the former seemingly bloom out in all eternity; keeping it moist, green, fresh, and yet at the same time dark, thorny and dangerous. L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Voleur de Roses is a great example of the synergy of the two, with a minty, camphoraceous patchouli creating something totally unexpected for a rose fragrance, which is so often left to smell prim and proper like bath products.

The damascones present in rose, also make up a significant part as the component of the smell of raspberries, as well as tobacco. The tying of Turkish rose with raspberry in Portrait of a Lady, and underscoring it with honeyed facets and smoky incense, creates ooomph. Volume, projection, a flaming red tongue wagging to everyone in the vicinity commanding respect. 

This is no shy lady. Beware! Her skin is ivory, the rose is blood red, her person is on the cusp of hot and cold. Like in the song Herrin de Fueurs, she has “hair of copper, like a chestnut tree in flames” and “name and blood from the innermost of the earth.”


Fragrant notes for Portrait of a Lady:  Turkish rose, raspberry, black currant, cinnamon, clove, patchouli, sandalwood, incense, ambroxan, benzoin and white musk

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