I will never tire of the lush paintings of John Singer Sargent, an American painter who is most famous for his “Portrait of Madame X.” The subject of that painting, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, was an American socialite married to a French banker and known in Parisian society for her beauty. ”Madame X” caused a scandal when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884 because of the suggestiveness of the pose, the revealing dress (the original version had one of the straps hanging off her shoulder), the luminous skin.
Before “Madame X,” Sargent lived in North Africa for a time, and was clearly inspired by his experiences to create “Fumée d’ambre gris (Smoke of Ambergris),” a hauntingly gorgeous painting. Ambregris, as the perfume obsessed know, is essentially regurgitation from a whale that has fossilized in the ocean over many years. Its warm, earthy odor is redolent of the resinous amber (hence, “gray amber”), and was once considered more valuable than gold.
“Fumée d’ambre gris” is now in the collection of the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA. Here is a description of the painting from the museum’s website:
Fumée d’Ambre Gris was painted after Sargent’s trip to North Africa in the winter of 1879-80. The painting depicts an exotically dressed woman inhaling the smoke of ambergris — a resinous substance found in tropical seawater. Ambergris was believed to ward off evil spirits and also served as an aphrodisiac. The painting is a mélange of North African details; the details of the costume and setting, however, come from different regions and social classes.