Monday, December 18, 2006

Fumee d'Ambre Gris: A Beautiful Painting of a Smoldering Piece of Sperm Whale Vomit

If you’ve been to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, you’ve no doubt been knocked out by a stunning John Singer Sargent painting called Fumee d’Ambre Gris. The title of the painting meant next to nothing to me until I read this story, in today’s Times, and learned that ambergris is a very rare substance that occasionally turns up on beaches after having been vomited up from the intestines of sperm whales.

A Long Island woman found what may well be a hunk of ambergris near Montauk about 50 years ago, brought it with her to Iowa when she moved there, and recently sent it back to her sister, who still lives in Montauk, in hopes that her sister can sell it for a lot of money -- the real stuff is valuable. The problem is that since the whaling era is long gone, virtually no one can positively identify ambergris these days. So while it may indeed be whale vomit, it might also be a blob of worthless junk.

The woman in Sargent’s painting, by the way, is apparently letting the smoke wash over her face, which was a custom in Morocco, where Sargent started the painting. That wasn’t one of the uses of ambergris listed by the Times:

Ambergris has been a valued commodity for centuries, used in perfume because of its strangely alluring aroma as well as its ability to retain other fine-fragrance ingredients and “fix” a scent so it does not evaporate quickly. Its name is derived from the French “ambre gris,” or gray amber. During the Renaissance, ambergris was molded, dried, decorated and worn as jewelry. It has been an aphrodisiac, a restorative balm, and a spice for food and wine. Arabs used it as heart and brain medicine. The Chinese called it lung sien hiang, or “dragon’s spittle fragrance.” It has been the object of high-seas treachery and caused countries to enact maritime possession laws and laws banning whale hunting. Madame du Barry supposedly washed herself with it to make herself irresistible to Louis XV.



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