John Singer Sargent: Smoke of Ambergris

Smoke of Ambergris: John Singer Sargent

Smoke of Ambergris (or Fumee d’Ambre Gris in French) by Impressionist artist John Singer Sargent shows a woman wearing a broad-rimmed hat inhaling ambergris. The picture, which was begin in Morocco in 1880 during Sargent’s travels across the Middle East and North Africa, is painted in the Realist style.

Ambergris is a substance extracted from whales and was said to have aphrodisiac qualities as well as being used in rituals. The picture seems to centralize both functions in the standing woman.

John Singer Sargent’s Smoke of Ambergris is in the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts.

4 thoughts on “Smoke of Ambergris: John Singer Sargent”

  1. I love this painting and just saw it again at the Clark. It looks like the woman has nail polish on, but that seems unlikely for the time period it was painted. How would you explain that?

    1. Teresa Gillespie

      It is most likely henna. Arab women mix henna powder with water and then put the paste on hands, feet and hair to dye it.

      1. Hello,
        You are wrong : henna is used only in north Africa by Amazigh (berber) women, arabs in Saudi-arabia (in Asia) use a similar technique but it’s not called henna.

        Henna is used by North africans women because in the religion of islam the tattoos are prohibited and North African women have, since antiquity, used tattoos, real ones, which do not fade (grandmothers still have this tattoo but the new generation unfortunately no longer perpetuates this Amazigh tradition) but you can see examples in real life like the grandmother of Moroccan footballer Hakim Ziyech who has a real Amazigh tattoo on her forehead. Amazigh tattoos differ from one tribe to another.

        However, we can clearly see that the women who has been painted by John Singer Sargent is a Moroccan lady which that means Amazigh lady.

        She wears the Haïk (North African draped garnement of Amazigh origin) and she wears the Amazigh fibulae (those in the painting are really big !) but we can easily say that it’s the Moroccan fibulae because of the size.

        Also, the things who lets us thinks that this painting is about Morocco, it’s because of Zellij (Moroccan Amazigh mosaïcs) and because of the architecture.

        You can check Moroccan Zellij on Wiki Commons, there’s beautiful pictures of it :

        I hope this information will enrich your knowledge.

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