Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau was the “it girl” of Paris during the late 19th Century. A wealthy Creole from Louisiana, she was considered one of the most elegant and beautiful women in France; a celebrated personality, she powdered her skin purplish white and rouged her earlobes red. And John Singer Sargent was still an up and coming talent when he pursued her to sit for a portrait.
But when the portrait was unveiled at the 1884 Paris Salon (the Salon was a big deal, kind of like the Oscars are for the entertainment industry now) it scandalized Gautreau. Sargent had painted one strap of her gown dangling from her shoulder which suggested the aftermath of sexual activity. And while there were indeed nude paintings hanging in the exhibit that year, her standing in society made the suggestion entirely inappropriate. Her reputation was so maligned that she and her mother threw big bitch fits and demanded that the painting be taken out of the exhibition and destroyed. Virginie was so depressed and self-conscious that she removed all the mirrors in her home and retired from public life.
The shocking reaction by art critics almost ruined Sargent’s fledgling career as well. When the painting came down from exhibit at the Salon, Sargent corrected his faux pas by painting over the dangling strap and repainting it into its proper place on the shoulder.The last book that I read in 2014 was I Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto; I wrote a TroysArt blog post on the subject (She WAS John Singer Sargent’s Madame X – TroysArt). I Am Madame X was a fictional novel which drew from historical details recreating the relationship between Virginie Gautreau and the brilliant artist. A friend shortly thereafter recommended Strapless, a book by Deborah Davis, which is the true story of the socialite, the artist, and the painting. Very little is actually known about the scandalized socialite. But using documents from private collections and other factual data, Davis weaves a delicious and detailed account of how Sargent rose to prominence as an artist and the relationship he had with Gautreau and others, including socialites and artists of the era.
It’s a fantastic read, chock full of historical detail.
And of course we know now that Sargent went on to become one of the most famous portrait painters of all time and the most important artist of the Gilded Age. The artist held onto the infamous portrait of Virginie, now called Madame X. After her death in 1915 he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it is part of the permanent collection where millions of people a year view it. It is also considered Sargent’s greatest masterpiece.
How ironic that the very painting that “ruined her” was ultimately the vehicle to her everlasting fame.