Women Picking Jasmine

Douglas MacDiarmid (New Zealander, b.1922, d.2020), Artist 1955 © All rights reserved

This delicate watercolour is based around Grasse, a town in the south of France that is not only the historic centre of the French perfume industry but the world capital of perfume (La capitale mondiale des parfumes). Jasmine is one of the key ingredients of fine perfume.

In 1955 Douglas was regularly painting in Provence and the Cote d’Azur, capturing landscapes and scenes of everyday French rural life. Not only are these favourite painting locations, he loves flowers and would have been drawn to the fragrant fields.

Just 20 kilometres from the French Riviera, Grasse’s climate is ideally suited to flower farming – warm, sheltered, plenty of water. Although a small crop in horticultural terms, jasmine is critical to the perfume industry and has been ever since it was brought to the south of France by the Moors in the 16th Century.

After years of decline, threatened by cheaper synthetic aromas, Grasse’s jasmine industry has recently undergone a prosperous resurgence. The tiny flowers are still painstakingly hand-picked over three months, usually by women who tend to have smaller, more dextrous fingers, to supply local perfumeries and major brands such as Chanel (think Chanel No 5).

Visitors are drawn to Grasse for its scent tours, perfume museums and Jasmine Festival, held in August to celebrate the start of the harvest in the south of France.

There is no record of 'Women picking Jasmine' in Douglas’ one-man or group art show catalogues collated from the 1955-63 period. It might have come to New Zealand for a solo MacDiarmid exhibition at the Wellington Architectural Centre’s gallery in March 1961 (for which we have few details). Their Centre Gallery was one of the few venues for showing modern art at the time. Douglas attended the opening, while home from France visiting his parents for the first time in 12 years.
He remembers it being a successful exhibition from which the National Gallery of New Zealand acquired their first MacDiarmid work. Unfortunately, this exhibition is a blur for him as it coincided with him belatedly hearing his French fiancée Jacqueline had tragically died weeks before after a skiing accident in Switzerland.

Alternatively, the Hutt Art Society could have bought the painting privately from Douglas’ art allies, composer Douglas Lilburn, musician Professor Frederick Page or art patron Dr Ian Prior, who quietly sold MacDiarmid work under the radar for years to support him while he struggled to establish a career.

Anna Cahill, March 2020
Women Picking Jasmine
Production date
image: 305 x 459mm (sight)
Credit line
Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, gifted by the Hutt Art Society 1971
Accession number