A Paris Scandal – Madame X

I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. If you are ‘bien avec elle’ and will see her in Paris, you might tell her I am a man of prodigious talent.”

John Singer Sargent in a letter to his friend, Ben del Castillo.

Madame X

My October 1st “Painting of the Day” was none other than the Portrait of Madam X! Ah, what a scandal it caused in the Paris Salon of 1884.

I recently finished reading David McCullough’s The Greater Journey – Americans in Paris,” which gave the full account, in flamboyant detail.  It all started when John Singer Sargent, whose artistic genius was in the ascendancy, asked to paint a portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, a Parisian socialite known for her beauty and lavish lifestyle.  She applied lavender-coloured face and body powder to her pale skin and added a henna dye to her luxuriant brunette hair.  Her elegance, style, and regal bearing attracted the admiration and attention of all who come within her sphere of influence.

John Singer Sargent and Virginie Avegno Gautreau, had two things in common.  Both were American and both were motivated to attain a high status in French society.  While she had declined other offers, Gautreau agreed to pose for John Singer Sargent.

All went well, in the beginning.  Gautreau believed that Sargent was painting a masterpiece worthy of her beauty.  Alas, the final product, which was named Portrait de Mme *** shocked and scandalized Paris.  Everyone knew it was a portrait of Gautreau.  There were tears and angry demands to withdraw the painting from the exhibition.  Sargent refused, but changed the name to Madame X which gave the portrait a dramatic flare and a hint of mystery.

The grand enterprise was a disappointment to both of them.  Gautreau was embarrassed by the affair, and Sargent would soon make London his permanent home.  Sargent sold the portrait to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the proviso that the sitter’s name  remained concealed.

“I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”

John Singer Sargent

 

18 Comments

    1. Clanmother

      The painting that I included in the post was the painting that scandalized all of Paris. There were nude paintings of other women in the 1884 Paris Salon, but they passed without any concern. I think it was Gautreau’s flamboyant and charismatic personality that created the drama. She was born in New Orleans (1859). Her father was from Italian descent and her mother was of French nobility. Her sister, Valentine, died of yellow fever; her father, a major in the Confederate Army died in 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh. She was only 8 when her widowed mother packed their bags and moved to France. Gautreau, recognized for her unconventional beauty, married into wealth and led an extravagant lifestyle. The painting was considered provocative and not appropriate for a woman of her position. In the first iteration, the strap of her gown had fallen down over her right shoulder; that was immediately remedied, but the pose with a cinched waist still set the tongues wagging. She had to retire from social life for a time, but it wasn’t long before she was welcomed back into the “fold.” As for Singer, he went on to paint approximately 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolours. But I think he probably meant what he said – it was the best thing he had done.

    1. Clanmother

      I agree – she was beautiful, elegant and perhaps, just a little arrogant. That combination always gives critics and gossips lots to talk about. But I rather think that she was courageous and daring. I have a feeling that John Singer Sargent captured her personality on canvas. 🙂

      1. Clanmother

        You’ll love it!! And once you start, you will always be on the look out for the next year. I have learned so much about art – it has become a daily tradition to look up the artist on google.

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