Acquired by Robert Sterling Clark in 1914
Although portraiture is the key public enterprise for which John Singer Sargent is remembered today, the foundation of his early reputation was also built upon the innovative subject paintings inspired by the artist's travels to exotic locales during the late 1870s and early 1880s. Fumée d'ambre gris was Sargent's major souvenir from a trip to Tangier in the winter months of 1879-1880. The painting's non-narrative structure and monochromaticism, as well as its mysterious ambiance, ensured that it was repeatedly singled out for praise at the Paris Salon later that spring.
With this representation of a North African woman infusing her robes and senses with the musky perfume of ambergris (a resinous substance extracted from whales and considered an aphrodisiac as well as a guard against evil spirits), Sargent entered into the list of artists who, from the 1860s to the turn of the century, popularized exotic images of Near-Eastern culture to Western audiences. However, unlike artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904), who relied upon heightened realism to lend veracity to the narrative of their paintings, Sargent's preoccupation in Fumée d'ambre gris was not with the subject matter.
Indeed, the painting is a nuanced study of creams and whites wherein Sargent subordinates the subject matter-through a tour-de-force presentation-to the act of painting itself. In this favoring of style over subject, Fumée d'ambre gris is an expression of the artist's alignment with the art-for-art's-sake movement that prevailed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
In July of 1880 he wrote to a friend about a "little picture I perpetrated in Tangier....the only interest in the thing was the color." [highlight added]
The color sense and painterly handling exhibited in Fumée d'ambre gris generated enthusiastic praise from critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Even the canny sophisticate, Henry James, was not impervious to the painting's seductive charm. Under the spell of its mesmerizing effect, the famous author expressed the essence of the mystery that still beguiles the viewer in our own day: "I know not who this stately Mohammedan may be, nor in what mysterious domestic or religious rite she may be engaged; but in her muffled contemplation and her pearl-colored robes, under her plastered arcade, which shines in the Eastern light, she is beautiful and memorable...."Entry by Sue Canterbury, assistant curator
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
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