John Singer Sargent, Fumée d'Ambre Gris, 1880
54.75 x 35.7 in.
John SInger Sargent (1856-1925) was a major American artist, often considered the leading portrait painter of his generation. Although his parents were American, Sargent was born in Florence and spent most of his life in Europe; his parents became nomadic expatriates, mostly based in Paris, after the death of John's older sister at age two and his parents decided to go abroad to recover. Sargent demonstrated a talent for art from childhood and first had painting lessons at age thirteen. He began formal training with the painter Carolus-Duran, before being admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. Sargent had his first painting accepted to the Salon in 1877, with his 1879 painting of Carolus-Duran his first major success. Sargent painted indoor and outdoor scenes of society and family, as well as landscapes, works with social commentary, and unconventional cultural scenes. Among his most famous and well-regarded paintings is Portrait of Madame X (1884), although at the time it was highly controversial for the model's attire and rumored infidelities. The model, Virginie Gautreau, was humiliated by the incident and Sargent was devastated; the failure of the piece was a huge blow to his burgeoning career in Paris. Soon after its exhibition, Sargent moved to London where his success continued unabated. Among the major figures Sargent painted were Robert Louis Stevenson, John D. Rockefeller, and most famously Theodore Roosevelt. Fumée d'Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris) is a beautiful painting, now hanging in the Clark Art Institute. It is simultaneously rather simple and quite complex. The use of such limited tones gives the painting an air of mystery, as well as invokes the sense of the Orient, for it was painted on a trip to Tangier. To create the gradations in texture and atmosphere with so little color require great skill and care. Ambergris, a resin excreted by whales and found in seawater, was believed to be an aphrodisiac and to ward off evil spirits. Henry James praised the painting as "exquisite, a radiant effect of white upon white," and says the woman is "beautiful and memorable." Indeed, we can see very little of the woman's face, but her beauty and mystery entice us to gaze at the painting to penetrate the world presented, in fact a fantastical and hodgepodge portrayal of its locale. Lifting her veil so slightly, the subject simultaneously evokes a nun and a geisha. The subtle and enveloping whiteness of this piece, made possible by its miraculous use of light, is beautiful and intensely engaging, shining with a bright mystique.