Fumée d'Ambre Gris

7:00 AM

John Singer Sargent, Fumée d'Ambre Gris, 1880
By TROY WORKMAN

The year before this painting's completion, John Singer Sargent took a trip to Tangier in North Africa. Orientalism in Europe at the time was a popular subject among artists and decorators alike. This was one of two paintings Sargent submitted to the Paris Salon of 1880. Sargent's depiction of Orientalism, shows a woman covered in an elaborate gown, bathing in the smoke of smoldering ambergris, a waxy substance that whales produce which is used in many perfumes. In Northern Africa where this woman lived, ambergris would be considered an aphrodisiac and a repellent to evil spirits. Her society would've forced her to be an extremely private woman, but since she models for Sargent, her social status moves to the outer ranks where this would be more acceptable. Sargent merges influences from many parts of the East, so it can be inferred that this particular image was created mostly in his mind.

The color attracted the most praise in this painting for obvious reasons. Sargent looks beyond the boundaries of just "white", and into individual shades that mesh and contrast perfectly with the subject matter. From the cold white walls of the room, to the white airy fabric draped around her body, each object receives a different level of attention to the individual hues of white. To me, this is the epitome of Sargent's work, and demonstrates his complete mastery of not only framing the subject matter, but paying extreme attention to the shades and hues in every object.

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