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