Smoke of Ambergris
John Singer Sargent (1880)
A woman holds her elaborate garment over a silver censer to capture the perfumed smoke of smoldering ambergris, a waxy substance extracted from whales used in some religious rituals and also said to have aphrodisiac qualities. Sargent began this painting with a model posed on the patio of a rented house in Tangier, but he completed it in his Paris studio.
A fantasy for 21st century Western eyes, the painting receives more votes than any other work in the collection of the Clark Art Institute, making it the overwhelming favorite.
Shannon Ferryall of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, writes,
“I can’t put it into words. The painting just speaks to me.”
“This haunting, mysterious, deeply evocative, white-on-white tour de force represents everything I cherish about the entire collection. No reproduction can ever come close to the palpable reality of standing before it.” – Joseph Wolf III
“It’s fascinating, it’s mysterious, it’s luminous. I felt lost when it was on loan.” – Lisa M. Avery