February 21, 2018

She WAS John Singer Sargent’s Madame X

Madame X

Madame X by John Singer Sargent (American, Florence 1856–1925 London) (1856 – 1925) (Artist, Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are few portraits by American painters as famous and recognizable as Madame X—perhaps American Gothic or Whistler’s Mother, or even Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington. But to most art aficionados, Madame X is considered one of the best portraits ever painted; and John Singer Sargent is considered by many connesseurs as one of the world’s greatest portrait painters. I just finished a novel about Virginie Gautreau—she WAS John Singer Sargent’s Madame X.

Sargent pursued the wealthy and beautiful Creole socialite as a sitter for the portrait as a way to display his talents to Parisian society, hoping to build a clientele in France. But when the painting was unveiled at the 1884 Paris Salon, with subject boldly posing in a provocative black dress, society was shocked and Gautreau was scandalized.  But apparently, even before the infamous portrait Gautreau had a reputation for promiscuity and showy displays.  And she was a real character too, with white powdered skin and rouged earlobes… 

Parlange Plantation

Parlange Plantation, Historic American Buildings, Survey Richard Koch, Photographer, September, 1936[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gioia Diliberto is the author of I Am Madame X. The book is actually nothing new–I heard of it many years ago but just got my hands on a copy.  And the book is a surprisingly quick read.  I loved how effortlessly the story flowed without superfluous, long-winded description. Drawing on the historical details, the novel recreates Gautreau’s tempestuous personality and the fascinating events of late nineteenth-century Paris.

Born in Louisiana and raised at Parlange Plantation, she fled to France as a child during the Civil War. From there the story immerses the reader in Belle Epoque Paris (her mother was a real bitch, by the way) and onto the struggle between the sitter and artist over the portrait that changed both their lives.

Madame X

John Singer Sargent in studio with Madame X, photograph attributed to A. Giraudon (http://www.npg.org.uk/live/frsarg.asp) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The painting was originally exhibited under the name Madame de *** , but following the critical firestorm Sargent referred to the piece as Madame X and kept the painting in his studio for the next 30 years.

The painting that was so maligned is now one of the crown jewels of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Upon the Met’s acquisition in 1915 Sargent is known to have simply stated, “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.”

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