Smoke of Ambergris is a rarity in Sargent paintings – it is his take on Orientalist art.


John Singer Sargent.  Self Portrait, 1906.  Oil on canvas.  Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

The Orient, encompassing present-day Greece, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East, had captivated Western artists for centuries.  Famous painters like Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430-1507) and Rembrandt (1606-1669) depicted figures in Middle Eastern garb, while Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) mastered Oriental genre scenes featuring harems.

After Napoleon invaded and overtook Egypt in 1798, however, the French presence attracted Western visitors.  In 1809, the French government published the first volume of a 24 volume set title, Description de l’Egypte, fueling more fascination with the Orient.

Among those transfixed by Orientalism in art was John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who began Smoke of Ambergris during his visit to North Africa in 1879-1880.


John Singer Sargent. Smoke of Ambergris, 1880.  Oil on canvas, 54 3/4″ by 35 11/16″.  Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

A woman standing below a Moorish arch is draped in an elaborate garment and holds a shawl over her head to capture ambergris smoke wafting out from a silver censer.  Ambergris, a gelatinous, intestinal substance from sperm whales, was used in the Near East as:

  • an alleged aphrodisiac;
  • a component in perfume; and
  • an alleged ward against evil spirits.

These diverse uses add to the ambiguity in Smoke of Ambergris, which also blends an array of Oriental images and cultural details.  The woman’s robes and mantle were typical dress for both genders living in North Africa, for example, but her jewelry and costume come from other areas.

So this is an imaginary scene.

One of two Sargent paintings in the Paris Salon of 1880, Smoke of Ambergris merits its fame due to his masterful technique: it is a symphony of whites, creams, and beiges with discrete touches of orange and red.  Sargent’s brushwork is so phenomenal – there isn’t a superflous brushmark – that it becomes a secondary subject of the painting.

In an article about John Singer Sargent in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of October 1887, Henry James observed,

“The picture is exquisite, a radiant effect of white upon white, of similar but discriminating tones.”

Well said.

Explore more Sargent paintings, Madame X and El Paleo. And learn about his little known contemporary, Anders Zorn.  If you haven’t already, please subscribe to this blog and join our community of art history fans.