Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle: Portrait of a Lady

portrait-of-a-ladyNotes: clove, cinnamon, rose, blackcurrant, raspberry, sandalwood, patchouli, incense, musk, amber, and benzoin.

Is it possible to be intimidated by a perfume? Or, should I say, is it silly to be intimidated by a perfume? Because Portrait of a Lady is one of those iconic fragrances that I’ve seen people mentioning even from the very beginning of my perfume journey. Everyone seems to have their own experience with it. Then, too, I have my own feelings about this perfume’s namesake, the novel by Henry James. I love Isabel Archer but find the novel’s last third and the ending so emotional (don’t marry Gilbert, Isabel!) that I have never re-read it. What experiences and associations could I bring to this classic scent? And what would Portrait of a Lady make of me?

Created by Dominique Ropion, Portrait of a Lady is a spicy rose patchouli scent. I swear there is a bit of pepper in the opening here even though it’s not listed. I get the spices right away with the cloves being the most dominant. The rose is there from the beginning of course, but this fragrance doesn’t hit you over the head with the rose note. It doesn’t need to. It’s as though the rose and the spices are tightly entwined and are slowly unspooling. The clove gradually gives way to a sweeter cinnamon spice, while the rose blends with the fruit, becoming jammy and full-bodied.

Patchouli is listed in the heart notes for this composition, and for good reason. It’s definitely a central focus so that’s something to be aware of if you’re not a patchouli fan. I detect a touch of oud as well, but it’s not listed in the notes. The patchouli is earthy but elegant. It’s not camphorous to my nose. It’s rich but dry. The patchouli here is actually what makes me think of Isabel Archer. The dry element that peeks out from time to time underneath the rich earthiness is elegant and enigmatic at the same time. It’s like a woman holding her head high and walking through a crowded party as everyone pretends not to stare after her.

The rose reappears alongside the patchouli and this time it’s a little bit more sweet, and a little bit more dry as well. The rose even turns a little powdery on me as the composition heads into the dry down, but not unpleasantly so. In fact, there is no stage or moment where Portrait of a Lady is unappealing at all. I haven’t been the biggest rose or patchouli fan, but Dominique Ropion pitches this composition just right in that it’s always balanced and it’s always interesting. Not easy to do.

Unfortunately, the one con has to be mentioned and that is that Monsieur Malle’s Editions do not come cheaply. The quality is there with Portrait of a Lady. The projection and the staying power are top-notch. I happened to be wearing this one night while watching Netflix on the couch and now my couch cushions seem to permanently smell like Portrait of a Lady – I’m not complaining! This scent really stays on both skin and on fabric. It’s a beautiful fragrance, and capturing both beauty and that frisson of something interesting isn’t always an easy thing to do. Still, at Frederic Malle price points, much like Isabel Archer, you need to be certain before making a commitment.


In the US, the Editions de Frederic Malle are available from Barney’s. Samples and decants are available from The Perfumed Court and from Surrender to Chance, which is where I got my sample.

Both the image and the info on notes are from Fragrantica.

4 thoughts on “Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle: Portrait of a Lady

  1. I loved PoaL from the first time I tried it but my bottle doesn’t come out of the box too often: in my opinion, it’s an extremely demanding perfume. It doesn’t have to be an actual special occasion but I can’t just spray it on and go to the office. It’s perfume for a weekend/vacation/leisure wear.

    1. Hi Undina, Happy Holidays to you!

      I see what you mean about PoaL being a demanding perfume. Whether it’s a special occasion or not, PoaL forces you to rise to its level of sophistication when wearing it.

  2. I have heard wonderful things about this one but never tried it…I adore patchouli, so much so that I will wear the dark version in essential oil form, straight up and with my chemistry is comes off as powdery and minty….agree on the price though šŸ™ But I guess a sample would do !

    Portrait of a Lady was required reading for me in college but I loved it so that I did indeed re-read several times over.

    1. If you can ever snap up a sample of this one, you definitely should! I bet it would be great with your skin chemistry if you love patchouli!

      And Isabel Archer is one of a kind. šŸ™‚

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