Incense, 1912


“Boy with Incense, 1912” was taken and printed by Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), a remarkable American photographer whose career as artist and mentor spanned eight decades. In 1912, she had a photo studio in Seattle, a city with its own Chinatown, but I could only guess if this photo was taken in her studio, or while she was out and about with her camera.

In 1971, she wrote, “Perhaps my taste lies somewhere between reality and dreamland,” and that seems to be where this photo lives.

For more about this inspiring woman, who began a major new project at the age of 92, click here and here and here.

On a Practical Note

“In the temple rituals of the ancient world, incense played a symbolic and a practical role. Because it was rare, expensive, and would be completely consumed by fire, it was considered a suitable sacrifice to the gods. Furthermore, priests and people hoped that their prayers would rise to heaven like the great clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. Then there was the practical dimension of burning incense: In temples where animals were sacrificed and their carcasses burned, incense helped mask the stench.”

“Great Clouds of Incense” by Thomas J. Craughwell in Our Sunday Visitor

Incense, 1898

I have hesitated to post one of the most famous paintings about incense because “L’Encens” (“The Incense”) gives me the creeps. No offense meant to the artist’s model, who was also his sister – all of the work of Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), the Belgian Symbolist painter, gives me the creeps. His images are described as mystical and dream-like; I find them nightmarish. Actually, compared to his “Mask, with a Black Curtain,” “L’Encens” is almost a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. It’s even available as a cross-stitch pattern. But it still creeps me out.


“L’Encens” (1898) in the frame designed by the artist

However, I can’t ignore it. If art is something that moves you, even it is to the nearest exit, this is art. Which could explain why it went for 2.7 million Euros the last time it was on the block. You can see it in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay, but don’t expect to meet me there.


I love reading beyond my demographic. In the May-June 2009 issue of Veranda, there is a feature about a wedding in France with a photo caption that reads, “Happy groom with the bride, who wears a white plumed fascinator.”

I applaud the writer, Tom Woodham, for knowing the word “fascinator.” I would have said, “The bride had feathers on her head.” Or perhaps, “The bride was tufted.” Or maybe “Plumes of white feathers sprang from the bride’s head like a downy eruption.”

But I wouldn’t last a week at Veranda. I wonder if Woodham had to ask someone, “What do you call that thing?” Or if everyone in their set knows what a “fascinator” is, and wears one often. And to whom do you turn if you want one made? A milliner? A taxidermist?

I should add that the bride was lovely. Not everyone, I imagine, can carry off a fascinator.

Or Smith

“I do not, in fact, recommend that any young man enter into a marriage with a Bryn Mawr girl unless he is sure he can absorb the extra amount of emotional experience that is involved. To awake to a serene morning in a green world; to be overtaken by summer thunder while crossing a lake; to rise bodily from earth, borne aloft by the seat of one’s pants as a plane passenger is lifted from the runway — unless a man can imbibe these varied and sometimes exhausting sensations, can profit from them, can survive them, I recommend that he take the easy course and marry into Wellesley or Barnard or Smith.”

— E.B. White in “Call Me Ishmael, Or, How I Feel About Being Married to a Bryn Mawr Graduate,” published in the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, Summer 1956

Incense, 960 AD


A Chinese incense burner, Jun ware porcelain with sky blue glaze. This breathtaking piece, unearthed at Yuzhou in Henan, dates from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD), and is on display at the Henan Museum in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China. The museum was established in 1927, and holds more than 130,000 cultural relics.