Visual Arts: Ambergris and Alchemy — A Pilgrimage to John Singer Sargent’s “Fumée d’Ambre Gris”
At times I leave off my avid samplings of one entrancement after another in a great museum. Instead, I make a pilgrimage dedicated to a single work, such as John Singer Sargent’s intoxicating woman in white in “Fumée d’Ambre Gris” at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
1. In the Museum: Flitting vs. Grazing
In the art museum, I used to dart like a bee, flitting from one enticement to the next, sipping visual nectar, hoping for that magical transformation that turns the assorted glimpses into a rich honeycomb of the imagination. Recently I’ve become more of a grazer, a ruminant pilgrim, absorbing and re-absorbing a single painting.
My imagery is of intake, though I was cured of simple gluttony long ago, in a bakery in southern France where my husband offered to buy me every pastry that struck my fancy, if I agreed to eat them all. I took him up on this dare, believing in my youthful appetite to be infinite. So, while he and his brother strolled ahead on the coastal road talking of mathematics, I ambled along ecstatically sampling the pastries from a large, white cardboard box. Soon sated, I slowed to a nibble and wondered what to do. Because of my deal, I couldn’t offer them what was left. So, when no one was looking, I flung the remaining sweetmeats, éclair and palmier and religieuse, tartelette aux fraises, and baba au rhum one by one over the cliffs to the sea.
In the library, we don’t have to read all the books; in a French pastry shop, I have learned, we don’t have to order everything; and in a great museum–even though so many art works are gathered under one roof–we really don’t have to gorge on them. So at times, I leave off my avid samplings of one entrancement after another; instead I make a pilgrimage dedicated to a single work, such as John Singer Sargent’s intoxicating woman in white in Fumée d’Ambre Gris at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
II. The Painting
Sargent made sketches for this oil painting during a visit to Tangiers in 1879 and exhibited the finished canvas in the Paris Salon of the following year.
A woman stands beside a column in a tall Moroccan arch. She holds her veil over her head to form a tent to catch the smoke rising from a silver brazier on the floor in front of her. Her layered robes are a buttery, tea-soaked white, against the cooler mauve and verdigris tones of the whitewashed walls. The filtered overhead light and the orientation of the patterned carpet hint that she is at the edge of a vast room or interior courtyard.
Our woman in white is so columnar that she seems like an architectural element herself. She reminds me of a caryatid, one of those female figures serving as columns for a temple, as in the Erectheum of the Acropolis in Athens.
The caryatids, too, had simple tunics secured at the shoulder over long, flowing skirts; their elaborate head-dresses turn into the capitals supporting the architrave of the temple.
But Sargent has lifted his subject from her surroundings, architectural, or societal, in order to focus on her and what she is doing. Although gesturally monumental, her activity is sensual rather than architectural.
Before we get to what she is actually doing, let’s look at her lifted veil, her robes, her fibulae.
She lifts her veil, and it becomes a parasol and tent, shading her from the indirect sunlight and capturing the fumes of the incense, directing them towards her face and her clothing. Although unveiled, her face is also hidden, for her gaze is withdrawn; the intensity of her engagement is not with us, nor with the painter, but with the ambergris incense. But we see that she is highly made-up, with kohl-darkened eyes and brows, rouged lips, painted fingernails, and a pair of rings on her little finger.
Her sleeves invite us in, with their dark charcoal shadows against the flesh of the forearms, milk-tea-colored mid-range of the outer layers, and dry brushstrokes evoking the frothy, white, cotton gown in between. A shockingly saturated strip of tangerine indicates the edge of some mysterious intergarment, hinting at the presence of an unknown inner life. There is so much we don’t know about her.
Perhaps the closest to “pure white” among the cream and milk and pearl tones of this painting are the highlights of the brilliant silver fibulae, functional jewels that serve as decorative brooch, necklace, and safety pin. Here they secure one layer of her shawl to her tunic.
In this photograph of a Moroccan fibula almost identical to those in Sargent’s painting, we see the wonderful simplicity of this form of pin, where the circular hold-all is rotated after the layers of cloth are pierced, to keep the sharp pin from sliding out and coming undone.
The fibulae occur prominently in the watercolor painting of the same scene Incensing the Veil, at the Gardner Museum. (Sargent inscribed this to the Parisian surgeon Dr. Samuel Pozzi; his portrait of Pozzi, finished in 1881, now in the Armand Hammer Collection in Los Angeles, is a strking and astonishing study in reds . . . but that is for another time.)
A few wisps of perfumed smoke rise from the smoldering ambergris whose live coals can be glimpsed through the elaborate fretwork of the silver brazier.
Although the properties of ambergris have been known for centuries—and also its uses as medicine, condiment, aphrodisiac, and perfume—its origins remain somewhat mysterious and are still the subject of study and debate. It is related only in name to the yellow (or “baltic”) amber, which is fossilized tree resin.
This grey amber is the product of sperm whales, both male and female, and it can be found in dead whales, on beaches or floating in the sea. Although it was long thought to be whale vomit, it is now known to be a coprolith or pathological concretion formed in the hind gut. Since these gigantic beasts, often 60 feet long, spend most of their lives a mile or two below the ocean’s surface, it is not known, for example, whether the whale can evacuate the ambergris by normal means or whether the animal dies from the immense blockage.
While ambergris always contains numerous inclusions of the beaks of squids and other cephalopods, it is no longer thought that these indigestible blades actually cause the pathology. In most of the sperm whale population, anything indigestible is simply vomited and has no relation to ambergris.
It is only in about one out of a hundred sperm whale individuals that an indigestible mass builds up in the gut—think of a hairball in a cat—and successive layers of feces are laid down around the mass. Over time, worked on by the wonderfully rich collection of organisms in the microbial garden of the gut, the deep inner core of this mass becomes hard and grey and fascinatingly fragrant, while the fresher, outer layers, usually blacker and mushier, simply reek like fresh whale dung.
It had long been thought that ambergris has to spend 10 or 20 years floating in the sea currents, exposed to sun and the elements, in order to transform from fecal matter to the rare and elusive “floating gold” so valued by the high-end perfume industry that its price is around $1,000 a pound. A more likely explanation—according to the late expert Robert Clarke, in his definitive The Origins of Ambergris—is that the long sea bath eventually washes off the smelly, black outer layers, leaving the hard, grey inner core, which is already sweet smelling, having undergone its miraculous transformation long ago inside the whale.
In perfume, ambergris works in two different ways: it fixes the perfume by combining with the scent molecules of an existing fragrance making them heavier, so they linger on the skin for a much longer time before evaporating. Ambergris also heightens the perfume by adding its own unique scent to the mix. The irony of ambergris being used only in the most expensive perfumes is beautifully caught by Melville: “Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.”
The scent has been called indescribable, though many have tried, and have likened it to the following smells:
old wood from animal barns
old wood from old churches
walking in the woods
The odd thing about the scent of ambergris is while there is always an “animalic” undercurrent, unlike the smell of most dungheaps, there is an addictive quality to ambergris, and one yearns to smell it again and again. Apparently it is not a pheromone for whales because they have a poorly developed sense of smell and because it occurs in only one out of a hundred sperm whale individuals. It may, however, work like a pheromone on humans and/or cause secretion of pheromones, which could account for its reputation as an aphrodisiac. It is enough, it is said, simply to rub it on your skin.
Historically it was used in medicine and cooking, and is still used in the Middle East as incense, perfume, and flavoring for food and even tea (by putting a dab on the inside of the cover of a tea pot). Brillat-Savarin added it to hot chocolate, and claimed that it cured physical and emotional ills, exhilarating the spirit.
When I was a child, I scoured the beaches of Cape Cod for ambergris thinking that it was somehow akin to pirate treasure. This hunt is still a full time job for some folks, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, where ambergris seems to wash up on the beaches with greater frequency than in New England because of the greater frequency of sperm whales. But because ambergris floats, it can turn up on any shore in the world. Besides, the longer the sea bath, the more of the reeking, fresh outer layers will be washed off, leaving the sought-after core.
It floats; it is hard and waxy. It can be any size, from a pebble to a huge boulder. It can look like a sea-smoothed stone. Or like pumice. Blackish or yellowish or greenish or snot-colored or grayish white. It will probably have sharp, blackish inclusions in it, the beaks of squids and octopi.
Be careful, though, for there are other waxy things that float and turn up on the beach: cooking lard from ships at sea; municipal sewer cleaning chemicals; rotting carcasses of marine animals or gulls; whale blubber; seal dung; tar. All of these can get your hopes up.
How do you know if this hard, buoyant object you have found is ambergris? Try poking it with a red-hot needle. It should melt. It should also have an indescribable, fascinating smell. This quest can become an obsession, as Christopher Kemp describes in his recent Floating Gold: A natural (and unnatural) history of ambergris. After reading his book, you, too, will lift stone after stone on the beach in order to heft and furtively smell it.
And when you find some ambergris? You should contact the highly reputed Bernard Perrin here, and if he finds your description interesting, he will ask for a tiny sample so that he can run a chemical analysis. If it is the real thing, he will make you an offer.
V. Ambergris as Natural Alchemy
If material alchemy is the transformation of base matter into gold, the formation of ambergris in the whale can be thought of as a natural alchemy, for what could be baser than a mass of feces and indigestible squid parts? And few things are more costly than the final product.
We are used to the domestic metamorphoses so elegantly performed by bacteria, yeasts, and molds to make our wine, cheese, pickles, yogurt, and bread. In these cases, though, the number of different types of microorganisms is much smaller than the widely diverse populations in that garden of microbial flora which is the hindgut of the sperm whale. In our kitchen transformations, too, the starting materials are often not so crude at all but very edible—grapes, cucumbers, milk—though they may be less interesting than the final product. In the alchemy of garden compost, however—the formation of “black gold” from kitchen wastes or barnyard manure—the great increase in value between the crude precursor and fine product is closer to that of ambergris.
Perhaps the most familiar alchemical transformation in literature occurs in the Grimms’ tale “Rumpelstiltskin.” Here the eponymous imp saves the life of a beautiful girl whose father—a criminally boastful miller—has told the king that she can spin straw into gold. Three times the king says the girl must spin a roomful of straw into gold before morning. Of course she can’t and falls to weeping. Three times the imp comes and does it for her. But each time, the text says, it takes him all night to perform this transformation.
If Rumpelstiltskin were performing simple magic, even a roomful of straw could be changed into gold in an eye-blink, a finger-snap, or with the recitation of a magic phrase.
What is happening here is not magic but rather work, using a special skill over a considerable time: the whole nightlong. As in any good alchemy, this transformative work takes application, knowledge, and attention. The king himself can’t do it—he is not fit for work of the hands; nor the miller, who probably works with his hands, but doesn’t know how to spin; and even the miller’s daughter, who can probably spin wool, clearly doesn’t know how to work with straw.
Spinning itself is a strange transformation. No physical or chemical changes are going on, as in all the microbial and alchemical processes mentioned above, just a wondrous change in shape. In spinning you take fibers, from fur of sheep, camel or goat or from plant stalks like flax or bamboo, all of which are too short to really work with, or you take fibers of silk, which are exremely long but too thin to work with, and you twist many fibers together so that you can weave or knit or sew them into sheets, which can be draped over large areas. So you are turning what are essentially linear short fibers into long fibers, which can then be braided or knotted or linked into planar figures—a change of dimension.
VII. Figure vs. Portrait
Sargent’s woman in white enchants us while at the same time excluding us from her consciousness. In this she demonstrates some of the differences between the “figure painting” and the portrait. In figure paintings we, the viewers, tend to stay on the outside, voyeurs, for the figure is not in conversation with us.
The sitter for a portrait has either commissioned the work—Here’s money, please paint me—or agreed to the work—OK, I will sit for you. In either case, the sitter chooses the soul-atmosphere or persona to project and is in conversation with painter and viewer, even when not facing us directly.
In a figure painting, the balance of choice and control tips toward the painter, who makes the theatrical choices of pose and costume. Here, too, the exchange of money often goes in the opposite direction: the painter pays the sitter, who may be a professional model or friend or lover or family member. Here, take off your clothes. Or Put on these robes. Lift your veil thus.
We know that the figure painting may be staged, and yet as viewers we enter into it in the same way we enter the world of a good fictional narrative: we believe it utterly. When we see Sargent’s statuesque self-intoxicator, we wonder, How often does she do this? Where is everyone? Where is she going? How can we get some?
VIII. Art and Alchemy
Critics have said that this is a painting more about the art of painting than about what is going on in the picture. Sargent himself writes the following to a friend:
“a little picture I perpetrated in Tangier . . . the only interest in the thing was the color.” (Curatorial notes of the Clark Art Institute)
But I think that quote sells the painting short. There is more going on in Fumée d’Ambre Gris than the brilliant brushwork with a restricted palette. The solitude and ritual stillness of the woman, the strong indication of an interior life, the nature of the incense—its provenance and its intoxicating and erotic effects—all point to the evocation of a particular moment in the confluence of the mysteries of the sensual, erotic, religious, and material worlds.
I don’t know exactly which pigments he used, but in general the materials of painting come from the crudest animal, vegetable, and mineral origins:
burnt bones (Bone Black),
charred wood (Carbon Black)
pressed plant roots (Madder Lake)
beetles (Carmine Lake)(Vermilion)
oxidized iron (Prussian blue)
ground rocks (Malachite)(Lapis Lazuli)
urine of cows fed on mango leaves (Indian Yellow)
natural earth (Green Earth) (Raw Umber) (Van Dyke Brown)
clay (yellow Ochre)
Mixed with water or oils pressed from flax (linseed) or resins distilled from pine trees (turpentine), these colors are applied—with a brush made of badger or rabbit hair, or a quill pen, or a metal tipped pen or engraver—to wood or cloth or paper that has been treated with glue made from rabbit skin.
For me Fumée d’Ambre Gris is about the painter as alchemist: how Sargent’s genius transforms humble matter and how the alchemy of work makes the work of art, which in this case evokes one of the strangest of all forms of natural alchemy: ambergris.
Using matter as a tool to deliver the even baser matter of pigment onto a ground made of cloth and animal glue, the painter brings all the elements of the imagination into being.
IX. Afterword: What Museums Really Do
I’ve stopped seeing the things in my house, except when some change happens—a new slant of light, an outrageous flower blooming next to something, a new friend to show things to. All the senses acclimate, even touch, and when we dress in the morning, we soon cease to feel the clothes, unless they are out of the ordinary. The nose gets accustomed to a scent, even ambergris; the ears stop hearing the opera singer in the attic, the hum of the house current.
The marvelous thing about going to visit a painting in a museum, or in the collection of a friend, is precisely that we don’t see the object all the time. The museum, or the collector, performs a favor: they keep works of art away from us most of the time! They keep the works rare and unfamiliar so that when we make the eventual pilgrimage, we can gaze with clarity and fierce attention. This is why we should not covet the works in a museum but only love them.