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May 9, 2008

Madame X

The lovely Chiquita is back with the second installment in her art series. (If you missed the first part, go and check out Artemisia Gentileschi right now.) Today we meet Madame X.

It’s very common to see women of all ages in various forms of undress these days without thinking much about it, but it wasn’t that long ago when the sight of a bare elbow or ankle created a stir. Remember hearing your mom or grandma talking about when wearing pants was a novelty? I don’t know about your family, but my mom used to tell me stories about when she was a little girl and wore pants to Sunday school for the first time—you’d have thought she’d gone wearing knee-high hooker boots and a tiny plaid miniskirt (or, oops, was that me?) with the looks she got all day long.
Even with that being so very recent, it’s still hard to imagine the furor provoked by a fallen metal strap on a black, slim-fitting, couture gown worn by the most fashionable woman at the height of the Belle Époque Paris.
Madame X, the infamous painting by John Singer Sargent
On a balmy summer day at the Paris Salon in 1884, Varnishing Day, crowds thronged through the rooms to view the art on exhibit as their creators struggled to finish varnishing their paintings before the big opening day. The catalog featured bland prospects, but everyone had come to see “The Gautreau,” as Sargent’s entry that year was known to society; they thrust forward through salon after salon to reach room 31, where the painting was featured. After years of daringly successful entries, Sargent had become known as the portraitist of vogue and his 1884 exhibit had been the talk of the town for months; Madame Virginie Amélie Avégno Gautreau was not only the most sought-after model for portraits, but also the most difficult model to acquire. There was no other more well-known or respected woman in Paris; she was lauded for her pale lavender complexion and for her daring fashion sense.
Plunging neckline just barely making contact with the flesh (the dress was designed by Félix Poussineau, who started out as a hairdresser and became one of the most highly-sought dressmakers), Paris’ most celebrated professional beauty stared over her left shoulder into the distance as she leaned on a table just a scant too low for support; her profile is the only clue left as to the identity of the lady in question. Art critics (now, of course) comment on Sargent’s unique positioning of Mme. Gautreau: her body facing the viewer indicated forthrightness in manner while her dreamy stare into the distance brings into sharp focus the fact that she was also an unattainable woman. Whether that was Sargent’s plan or not, she did have a reputation for being more forward than most women of her time and a flair for drama and risk. Interestingly, her choices usually guided her easily through society’s inner circles of typically uptight aristocrats, politicians and businessmen.
It took more than thirty sittings and another painting before Sargent came up with the image he’s known for. His letters were usually terse and impossible to extract meaning from, but obviously Mme. Gautreau got on his nerves:
He wrote about his struggles with “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau,” and in a letter to his friend Albert de Belleroche, “Mme. Gautreau is at the piano and driving all my ideas away.” (Strapless)
With all the hype that awaited Sargent’s new masterpiece and the high expectations based on his earlier work (see Dr. Pozzi at Home), nobody was expecting what they saw.
Dr. Pozzi at Home, by John Singer Sargent
During one of her sittings, Mme. Gautreau’s metal strap slid down her shoulder, and as she moved to adjust it, Sargent had an ah-ha! moment; it was just what the painting needed to give it that provocative edge to set it apart from all the other exhibits at the upcoming Salon. So he painted her strap as resting on her upper right arm.
Photo of Madame X 'Strapless' as it Appeared in the Salon
It seems Sargent was nervous about how the painting would be perceived. He made another copy of the painting, just in case:
Copy of Madame X without strap
…but he never finished it; still unsure, he asked his former teacher’s advice:
Sargent wondered whether he should further refine the copy or return to the original. He invited Carolus-Duran to give a candid assessment of his work-in-progress. His former teacher, Sargent believed, would be an informative, impartial, and trustworthy judge. He knew Sargent’s capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses better than anyone, and he was an expert in portraiture. As well, Carolus-Duran had strong relationships with the artists who controlled the Salon. He knew the intricacies of its politics and was keenly aware of the judges’ likes and dislikes.
Upon viewing the painting, Carolus-Duran quickly dispelled Sargent’s fears. He advised him to send his finished portrait of Madame Gautreau to the Salon with confidence, assuring him that it would be well received. (Strapless)
Would you trust the word of your former teacher if he was also competing with you for the same audience?
As one of Paris’s most successful artists, teachers and arbiters of public taste, Carolus-Duran must have sensed that Sargent’s unusual painting would be controversial. (Strapless)
Apparently Sargent didn’t see it that way; he framed the painting and shipped it off to the Salon. His successes in previous Salons gave him automatic entry, whereas most other artists’ work had to be selected by a panel of judges; success at a Salon guaranteed admission the following year, so it paid to have a good sense of what the people of Paris wanted to see. Sargent’s taste was unerring so far.
On Varnishing Day, 1884, the Salon was filled with anticipation…and with unpleasant feelings.
Looking for Sargent, [Ralph] Curtis “found him dodging behind doors to avoid friends who looked grave. By the corridors he took me to see it. I was disappointed in the colour. She looks decomposed. All the women jeer ‘Ah voila “la belle!’ ‘Oh quelle horreur!’ etc.” (Sargent)
Not exactly a good reception for Mr. Sargent. Mme. Gautreau’s mother had something to say later that day:
That evening Sargent was visiting his friends the Boits when an enraged Mme. Gautreau and her mother stormed into his studio. The mother later came back alone and, according to Curtis, made a “fearful scene.” “All Paris is making fun of my daughter,” Mme. Avegno said. “She is ruined. My people will be forced to defend themselves. She’ll die of chagrin.” When she demanded that Sargent remove the picture, he refused—it was against the rules and against his principles. “Defending his cause made him feel much better,” writes Curtis. “Still we talked it over till 1 o’clock here last night and I fear he has never had such a blow.” (Sargent)
Paris society’s glib tongues weren’t saying anything that they hadn’t already said about Gautreau, but the critics were particularly harsh on the painting because although Mme. Gautreau was alleged to have many affairs, it wasn’t “done” to throw it in the face of polite audiences.
Though Mme. Gautreau’s adulteries were well known, thanks to gossip and to scandal sheets, they were not considered a fit subject for polite conversation. It was unthinkable for a painter to offer emblems of her way of life to audiences at the Salon, that sacrosanct institution of French culture. Yet that is what Sargent did. His painting rendered faithfully her covering of lavender powder, an affectation of the most brazenly voluptuous sort. Moreover, Sargent emphasized the arrogance with which she flaunted her décolletage. Leering instead of sputtering Albert Woolf of Le Figaro said, “One more struggle and the lady will be free.” (Sargent)
Although I wasn’t aware it was a bad thing to be “brazenly voluptuous,” remember that in 1884, the fact that her dress was close-fitted indicated that she wasn’t wearing a petticoat, considered the staple of a respectable woman—in fact, her whole outfit, while she was able to pull it off in public on the basis of being avant garde, was presented in a painting in a manner mostly considered “in-your-face.” There it was, in plain view—at least, as Parisian society saw it.
Sargent left the painting in the Salon for the full two weeks, following the rules, and when the Salon was over, retired the painting to his studio, out of sight. He repainted her strap to rest securely on her shoulder, which reattached the bodice squarely to her breast. The Gautreaus chose to distance themselves from the painting (and the painter) rather than purchase it, and for many years, Madame X never left the studio.
It didn’t take forever for Paris society to get over itself. Mme. Gautreau’s reputation suffered only a minor setback, and she was soon back to being seen, although she did pick and choose more carefully where to be seen at first. There’s a story that after the incident and the comments made about her beauty (let’s review: “Ah voila ‘la belle’!” and “Oh quelle horreur!”), she locked herself away in her home, only leaving in a covered carriage, and that she had all mirrors removed from her home. Actually, that didn’t happen until much later. As indulging as Paris could be, it could also be very cruel; as soon as she started showing signs of aging, many of the critics who had praised her youth and beauty when she was a young, newly-married woman began to ridicule her.
Montesquiou, who had been so enchanted with Amélie when she entered society as an alluring young bride, was one of the first to ridicule her when she showed signs of age. “To keep her figure she is now obliged to force it,” he mocked, “Not to the mold of Canova but a corset.” (Strapless)
(Canova was a famous sculptor of lovely, voluptuous women.)
Pauline Bonaparte as Venus, Canova
Ironically, Montesquiou had been an older man when Mme. Gautreau was young; when she was old, he was older still. Where were his mockers?
However cruel society could be, Mme. Gautreau proved to be resilient and strong. Seven years after the Madame X scandal, another painter, Gustave Courtois, painted her again, this time in a flowing white dress, facing the opposite direction. Daring as ever, Madame Virginie Amélie Avégno Gautreau…dropped her strap.
There’s a ton more to the story, of course, so here are a few interesting tidbits you might want to delve into on your own:
*Sargent is believed to have been either bisexual or homosexual, because of his unusual attachments to various friends, such as Albert de Belleroche, and because of his painting of Dr. Pozzi—but we’ll never know because he was probably extremely careful and never wrote about it. If true, he would certainly not have been able to pursue his interests—not even Paris was that open-minded, and England passed a law criminalizing homosexual acts, which is how they prosecuted Oscar Wilde.

*Mme. Gautreau and Sargent were, at the time of the scandal, France’s most famous American imports: one the greatest beauty, and one the greatest painter. Both rose the top of their classes against considerable odds, using only their shrewd talents and good looks.

*Sargent’s sister was the writer Vernon Lee.
Great books on the Madame X Scandal, Mme. Gautreau, and John Singer Sargent:

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Yenna said...

I would love to read this blog but find the yellow font too hard to decipher. I am sure it is interesting but if you blog a long text, it should be easy on the eye or nobody will read it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that was a very old blog entry... from back when we had a black background, lol. I "updated" it for our new background.