Thursday, 12 April 2012

Floral Asphyxiation - Death by Perfume

My own paper at The Society of Dix-Neuviémiste's conference on the Senses (held last week at Mary Immaculate College) explored the theme of Floral Asphyxiation in Nineteenth-Century Paintings and Literature.
In particular I examined a little known painting by the Victorian artist John Collier called The Death of Albine (1895).
The painting takes as its subject the bizarre suicide of the female protagonist of Zola’s novel, The Sin of Father Mouret (1875). In the novel, Albine, an innocent and uneducated village girl, fills her bed with flowers and suffocates, intoxicated under an intense cloud of scent.  She is heartbroken as her lover, the devout curate Père Serge Mouret has forsaken her – and returned to the cloth and his beloved idol of the Virgin Mary. In a scene of  frantic intensity, Albine plunders her beloved gardens of Paradou of all its blossoms, heaping great mounds of petals and blossoms about her room, until the bed is ‘completely buried …under hyacinths and tuberoses’ and the mattress ‘overflows on all sides’ with streams of flowers trailing to the floor.Only when the boudoir is decked with roses, violets, carnations, stocks, primroses, heliotropes and lilies - flowers of every kind - and she has sealed her tomb, cramming aromatic herbs into ‘every crack’ and ‘every hole in the door and windows’ does she arrange herself on her bed 'to die with the flowers'.
Collier’s painting has been languishing in Glasgow museums storage and had been widely thought by art historians to be lost, and known only by its reproduction in The Graphic of 1895. In its day, it was a very popular painting. It hung at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1895 alongside such well known Victorian paintings as Leighton’s Flaming June and Waterhouses’s St. Cecelia  and later in the 1890s 40% of children visiting the collection at Toynbee Hall in East London voted it their favourite painting on display!  It was through The BBC Your Paintings (Public Catalogue Fund) website that I was able to ‘rediscover’ the painting.
My talk gave a critical analysis of the painting, in the context of both the novel, 19th century interest in the physiological effects of odour upon the body for both stimulation and tranquilisation and even popular accounts from the period of women suffocating from the fragrance of flowers. As it turns out, Zola himself was one of the first to write such an account.  As a journalist for the L'Evenement Illustré, he reported in the 1860s on an unusual murder case in England, in which a woman, sleeping in a closed room, died in the night from the toxic emanations of an Oriental flower placed at her bedside.
Although I didn’t say this in my 20 minute paper, I can’t help thinking it ironic that Zola himself died of asphyxiation – from gas poisoning in his flat.
What do you notice or think about when you look at this painting? 


  1. Can I bring the tone of the discussion down from the sublime to the geeky by mentioning how much this reminds me of Amidala's coffin in Episode III of Star Wars? There's a good picture - that you can click on to enlarge - further down this page to the left: To raise the tone again, however, it always reminded me of Millais' "Ophelia".

  2. You are so right! This has made my day! I would never have guessed that someone would make a Star Wars link here! :)

    Someone mentioned the Ophelia influence at the conference I spoke at - and its interesting to think about the idea of drowning in scent/flowers and I am certain Collier would have had Millais' painting in mind. The comment also reinforced for me the thought that in my book I have to be sure to include more familiar reference points too. Thank you!

    1. Victorianlibrarian... an auction house colleague of mine tells me that George Lucas is a big art collector. So, it is even more likely that he would have had Millais's Ophelia in mind.

  3. Coming from German nineteenth-century literature, I have to wonder whether the flowers were in full bloom or just buds--as the state of the flower would correlate to the state of a young woman's sexuality: nascent or fully flowered. While thinking of flowers and deflowering and looking at the painting, I assume (not being familiar with this Zola work) that she was seduced, probably willingly, and then left and the symbols of her sexual awakening become the symbols of her death.

  4. That's an interesting point. In the text she has an innocent, very natural quality - but she is not a virgin - they consumate their relationship before he abandons her. In the painting there are some tight buds - but also flowers where the roses are past their zenith!