Fumée d'ambre gris (Smoke of Ambergris)

A woman holds part of her elaborate garment over a silver censer to capture the perfumed smoke of smoldering ambergris. A waxy substance extracted from whales, ambergris was used in some religious rituals and was also said to have aphrodisiac qualities. Sargent began this painting in Tangier, with a model posed on the patio of a rented house, but he completed it in his Paris studio. The finished painting presents a fantasy for Western eyes, combining details of costume and setting adapted from different regions across North Africa.

Smoke of Ambergris was the product of John Singer Sargent’s trip to North Africa in the winter of 1879–80. One of two paintings that he sent to the Paris Salon of 1880, it is his own interpretation of orientalism, a common theme at that time in which artists sought out exotic subjects. The painting depicts a heavily draped woman inhaling the smoke of ambergris—a resinous substance found in tropical seawater and believed to come from whales. It was thought in the Near East to be an aphrodisiac, as well as a safeguard from evil spirits. The model, of whom Sargent made several sketches, probably lived in cosmopolitan Tangier. In a society that forced women to be intensely private, working as a model would have relegated her to its outer fringes. Her robes and mantle are of a type worn by both men and women throughout North Africa, but the details of the costume and setting come from different regions and social classes. The painting is a mélange of Moroccan objects and customs that Sargent encountered in Tangier and Tétouan. Therefore, the scene must be viewed as an imaginary one.

The masterfully seductive use of color in Smoke of Ambergris probably attracted the greatest praise. In an article on Sargent in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, October 1887, Henry James wrote, “I know not who this stately Mohammedan may be, nor in what mysterious domestic or religious rite she may be engaged; but in her plastered arcade, which shines in the Eastern light, she is beautiful and memorable. The picture is exquisite, a radiant effect of white upon white, of similar but discriminated tones.” On June 9, 1880, an unidentified critic in the Interchange referred to Sargent’s Smoke of Ambergris as, quite simply, “a perfect piece of painting.”

—Steven Kern, excerpted from The Clark: Selections from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Steven Kern et al. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), p. 116.


To unidentified Frenchman, 1880; (Broussod, Valdon et Cie., Paris); to (M. Knoedler & Co., Paris, July 6, 1914); to Robert Sterling Clark, September 10, 1914.

John Singer Sargent

American, 1856–1925

Fumée d'ambre gris (Smoke of Ambergris)


Oil on canvas

Unframed: 54 3/4 x 35 11/16 in. (139.1 x 90.6 cm) Framed: 64 1/2 x 45 1/2 x 3 in. (163.8 x 115.6 x 7.6 cm)

Acquired by Sterling Clark, 1914




Conrads, Margaret C. American Paintings and Sculpture at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990.

Haverkamp-Begemann, Egbert, Standish D. Lawder, and Charles W. Talbot, Jr. Drawings from the Clark Art Institute: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Robert Sterling Clark Collection of European and American Drawings, Sixteenth Through Nineteenth Centuries, at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown. 2 volumes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.