John Singer Sargent’s ‘Fumée d’Ambergris’ has earned praise from many visitors.
John Singer Sargent’s ‘Fumée d’Ambergris’ has earned praise from many visitors. (Images courtesy of Clark Art Institute)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- A woman in a white gown and a long creamy scarf or hood stands beside a white scalloped pillar. She stands on a soft rug of amber and black and cream, laid crosswise on a floor of six-pointed stars, and at her feet a silver brazier sends up a gentle smoke. She holds her scarf open, showing her downturned face, the silver clasps of her cloak, her forearms and hands and crimson-painted nails. She looks thoughtful and absorbed, broad-shouldered and firm.

She stands quietly in one of the Clark Art Institute's best-loved portraits, John Singer Sargent's "Fumée d'Ambre Gris." As the Clark heads into its final season of renovations, the whole of the main building has now closed, except for the library, and the auditorium for concerts and films, said Sally Morse Majewski, the museum's manager of public relations and marketing.

The museum will announce future plans in December, she said. For now, and during the winter, the café and the shop and bookstore in the main building have closed, along with all the gallery space, but the store of international newspapers and magazines will remain open on Spring Street through October.

And at the museum visitors can walk the trails up Stone Hill and to the Stone Bench and come to the Stone Hill Center to look out from the terrace over the turning trees -- and to get reacquainted with familiar highlights of the collection.

The woman breathing in her perfume of ambergris is well-muscled, beautiful and mature. She stands straight and composed under the observer's eye. She wears silver, and clean white cloth someone must wash carefully. She seems absorbed in this act of worship or of preparation.

Still, she invites questions. Who is she, and what is she thinking about, and where will she go when she leaves this enclosed courtyard?

"She is approachable," said Sarah Lees, assistant curator of European art at the Clark, and one of a group of curators who assembled the new fall show.

Sargent, an American artist living in Paris, traveled through Spain and Algeria in 1880, as many French artists did then. He studied tile patterns and architecture and painted portraits of Bedouins and goatherds. He began this painting in Tangiers, Lees said, with a model posed on the patio of a rented house, and he finished it in his studio in Paris.

He has painted her in a private moment, and her composure stands in strong contrast to the naked pain in Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's "Mater Dolorosa," Our Lady of Sorrows, the sad woman -- the bust of a woman wearing a scarf and hollow-eyed with distress.

Carpeaux patterned her on a distraught woman he knew, Lees said, a former model grieving over the death of her child.

In the new Stone Hill show, the curators have organized the works thematically, not by schools or by chronology, but by subject -- faith, faces and places.

They are grouped not as scholars would think of the work, but maybe more as the artists themselves would have thought of it, Lees said.

Putting works side by side that have not appeared near each other before, she said, has given this show a sense of playful flexibility and has brought out new connections between images, like Paul Gaugin's Christian girl beside the portrait of a warrior.

Looking down the gallery, she feels a sense of movement. People in the portraits lean forward as though drawn to the person in the next frame, looking at or past each other.

Similar colors or gestures catch her eye.

The Clark will open a Kidspace exhibit later this month, she said, to encourage this way of seeing. The show, still in the planning stages, they will call "Six," encouraging people to describe something about each painting in six words. It will have online element sharing these comments and reactions.

Seeing a familiar painting in a new setting may bring out new details, Majewski said. Looking at one silver cream pot into a room full of faces, she saw the tiny human faces carved into the silver, and the faces of visitors reflected in its curves.

She saw the small pitcher, she said, more clearly than she might see one piece in a wide display of small objects.

The art seems to breathe differently in this physical space, Lees suggested, in these rooms, with modern, clean lines and more natural light.

Here, across from a stark and vivid St. John the Baptist in shades of dark red, early morning light shines on the kindness of the market women helping the hung-over revelers in Lawrence Alma-Tadema's "Women of Amphissa" -- and on hanging meats, cheeses and summer squash as lovingly detailed as the driftwood and pebbles in Giovanni Boldini's "Return of the Fishing Boats, Étretat." This Boldini painting is a favorite of Lees' and a miniature bright with detail. Boldini seems to suggest minute elements with a brush stroke: beach stones, the slats of a boat, rust on an anchor.

Boldini knew Sargent. Thinking of the painting across the hall prompts a comparison: Could either of them have known the tiny, jewel-bright and fantastic Persian and Mughal miniature paintings that illustrated books in Persia and India? Boldini's scene seems scarcely larger than the miniature silk-gowned woman by the river in the collection at the Williams College Museum of Art.

But like the woman in Sargent's painting, Boldini's gathering of fisherman up all night and tourists picking their way across the wet rock feel three-dimensionally real. The woman in the Sargent painting breathes the scented smoke of the musk of a sperm whale. And the working men and the tourists in Boldini's painting wade back toward the sand in their wet shoes, with a smell of salt water around them and hermit crabs in the tide pools.

 

If you go ...

What: Three new shows at Stone Hill Center -- ‘Sacred and Profane,' ‘Face Time' and ‘Land, Sea, and Sky'

When: Through December

Where: 225 South St., Williamstown

Admission: Free

Information: www.clarkart.edu