“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.
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