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Portrait of Madame X: The biggest scandal in Art

The audience can make or break an artist. How an artwork is received depends highly on the viewers’ maturity, taste, and values. These factors vary greatly among different groups of audiences. “Portrait of Madame X” is one such painting that caused an intense uproar among the French audience of the time, but today it is considered the embodiment of sensuality and grace. The events surrounding this notorious portrait force us to think whether all publicity is good publicity.

The Story of Madame X

Virginie Amélie Avegno was born in Louisiana to a wealthy family engaged in agricultural business. Her father tragically died in the American Civil War after which it was difficult for her mother to look after the family plantation.

Amélie’s mother decided to move to Paris with her daughter. To secure her future, the mother decided to marry Amélie off to a rich banker named Pierre Gautreau who was almost twice her age. 

Madame’s Reputation

Madame Gautreau lacked the background and the family name that were essential to be respected among the elite upper-class Parisians. However, her unmatched beauty made her look like a living goddess, almost impossible to ignore. She soon learned the ways of the rich and with her elegant style, alabaster skin, and hourglass figure, she became one of the top socialites in Paris. 

Her looks naturally attracted many artists and soon she modeled in numerous important paintings. Even after all the attention, she sought more recognition, admiration, and excitement. Soon she was associated with rumors of several extramarital affairs with eminent men of the society. 

Portrait of Dr Pozzi in Red robes by John Singer Sargent
Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881) by John Singer Sargent. Public Domain.

Most famously, her name was associated with Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi a gynecologist who emphasized the dignity of women and reproductive safety. Dr. Pozzi was also an art collector and commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint his full-length portrait. This portrait is one of Sargent’s most beautiful works titled Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881). In the portrait, he is dressed in a dazzling red robe, surrounded by scarlet curtains. Pozzi looks both gentle and manly in the portrait. Without a doubt, he was extremely pleased with how the portrait turned out. 

The Artist’s Story 

John Singer Sargent Self Portrait (1892)
John Singer Sargent Self Portrait (1892). Public Domain

John Singer Sargent was one of the greatest portraitists of the late 19th century. Sargent’s family was from the United States of America, but he was born and brought up in Florence. During his lifetime he made about 900 oil paintings and 2000 watercolor paintings.

Sargent’s family wasn’t very financially sound when they arrived in Italy. Despite all the difficulties, his mother made sure that gets the best education possible. In 1877 he entered his first art exhibition and his skill was immediately recognized. 

He received several commissions thereafter but still sought more opportunities.  Like any expatriate, he had to put in extra effort to be recognized in society.

How she became Madame X

Even though Madame Gautreau wasn’t interested in modeling at the time, she was successfully wooed by Sargent to be his model. Historians speculate that Dr.Pozzi might have influenced her in some way to accept Sargent’s proposal. 

Another reason why she might have agreed to be his model would be for the several similarities between her and Sargent. Both of them were expatriates from the United States and were struggling to make a name for themselves. On this common ground, Gautreau finally agreed to his request.

The Making of Madame X

A figure study of Madame X by Sargent in Watercolor and Graphite
A figure study by Sargent in Watercolor and Graphite (1883). Public Domain.

Sargent saw an opportunity in Madame Gautreau, an investment that would get his name out in the world. Therefore for the sake of exposure, he made the portrait without commission. 

Sargent was aware of Madame’s notorious reputation but could not turn a blind eye to her beauty. He met Gautreau in 1882 and finally succeeded in wooing her to be his model. However, this was not the most difficult part. 

The model started to feel that it was too monotonous to just be sitting still for hours on end. Soon she became very distracted by other social engagements and couldn’t hold her pose for long enough. Sargent described her as 

Madame Gautreau rough sketch by John Singer Sargent
Madame Gautreau Rough sketch by John Singer Sargent. Fair Use.

“…The unpaintable beauty and Hopeless laziness of madame Gautreau”

John Singer Sargent

Art historians say that she lacked the discipline to pose and be a model. Several rough sketches that show her lack of discipline are available at the Harvard museum.

Analysis of the Painting

Nevertheless, the portrait was stunning. In the painting we see Gautreau resting her right hand on a wooden table and leaning on it gently. Her body faces the viewer while her head is turned to the left. She holds a black fan in her other hand which almost mixes in the black fabric of her dress. 

The pose is casual yet, assertive, and confident. She wears a classy formal black gown with bejeweled sleeves and a sweetheart neckline. The deep neck and her cinch waist guide our eyes lengthwise from the top to the bottom of the portrait. Her sharp nose makes a visual tangent leading our eyes to the background. 

Portrait of Madame X by John Sing Sargent (1884)
Portrait of Madame X by John Sing Sargent (1884). Public Domain

A flash of light is seen on her third finger, revealing a wedding ring. Her pale skin contrasts well with the earthy brown background and her black dress.

She used chlorate of potash powder to brighten her naturally white skin and henna to darken her red hair. Her pink ear brings our attention toward the lavender powder on her body that makes her skin look like porcelain. Here bare ear led many to speculate that the painting is a portrayal of her true self under her social facade. 

She wears her hair beautifully in a Greecian hairstyle adorned with a crescent moon tiara. The tiara may be an allusion to the Raman Goddess Diana. Diana is the goddess of hunt, purity, and virginity. Contrasting the purity of a goddess one may notice the legs of the table. The table has legs of a siren that were mythological creatures of seduction. 

These contrasts in her appearance and the small details in the props contributed heavily to the public reception of the painting. 

Madame X before the Big Reveal

In 1995 the portrait of Madame X was studied rigorously using X-radiography. This revealed the several small changes Sargent had made to perfect his vision of Madame Gautreau. 

The most noticeable changes were made in the positioning of the model’s arms and her ear. The shape of her profile, especially her nose has also been altered multiple times. 

Even after the painting had been framed, Sargent still decided to make stark changes in the color palette. The painting had strong undertones of blue in the background over which he decided to put a thin layer of light rose paint. On the corners of the canvas, one may see the dazzling blue background peeking beneath the dull brow paint.  

The Reception of Portrait de Mme *** 

The portrait took longer to finish than it should have but finally was ready to be exhibited at the 1884 Paris Salon. These salons were important art exhibitions situated in the posh areas of France such as the Louvre. Exhibiting one’s painting at one of these salons meant showing your work to thousands of people in a day. 

Portrait de Mme ***  original
Portrait de Mme *** by John Singer Sargent. Fair Use

Sargent painted the portrait of an elusive socialite who was exceedingly beautiful in the hopes of becoming an overnight celebrity. He also kept the model’s identity hidden which would create mystery and hence more interest. He titled the work as “Portrait de Mme ***” meaning “the Portrait of Madame …”

However, nothing that he had dreamt of ever occurred. Even though the artist tried to keep the model’s identity a mystery, the audience immediately recognized her. While the portrait did turn a lot of heads, it was for all the wrong reasons.

The initial painting portrayed Gautreau in the same pose, but with one of her straps casually slipping off her shoulder. The loose strap was immediately linked with the model’s loose character. Her pose is intimidating yet inviting and provocative. An exposed cleavage along with her exaggerated features made the portrait way too sensual and inappropriate for the tasteful audience. 

“Sargent is below his usual standard this year… The pose of the figure is absurd, and the bluish coloring atrocious. The features are so exaggerated that the natural delicacy of outline is entirely lost.” Under Sargent’s brush, the “so-called beautiful” subject looked like a mere “caricature.”  

Times

The combination of a wedding ring and a bare shoulder was a clear indication of an extramarital affair. The model’s mother made a demand for Sargent to withdraw the painting, but the damage was already done. He did re-paint over her shoulder so that the strap would be in place but the audience could not overlook the sensuality of the painting. 

She was an example of unrealistic and unattainable beauty. Her pointy nose, extremely thin waist, and ghost-like white skin made her look like a caricature. Some speculated that she used to ingest arsenic to make her skin light. 

Sargent’s sister wrote the following:

There was a grand tapage (uproar) before it all day…I found him dodging behind doors to avoid friends who looked grave…I was disappointed in the color. She looks decomposed. All the women jeer. Ah voilà ‘la belle!’ ‘Oh quell horreur!’ (“Oh there is ‘the beauty!’ Oh what a fright!”) etc….All the a.m. it was one series of bons mots, mauvaises plaisanteries (puns, bad jokes) and fierce discussion. John, poor boy, was navré (heartbroken).” 

Evan Charteris, John Sargent (New York, 1927)

Their lives after Madame X

Madame Gautreau continued to live in Paris after the scandalous Salon of 1884, however, she was abandoned by her high society acquaintances. For some reason, she started to live away from her husband and died in 1915, at the age of 56.

“I will try to get over the sadness which for several days has overwhelmed me and which makes me depressed enough to die.’”

Madame Gautreau (VIA De COSTA)

The painting was now associated with eroticism and vulgarity and so was the model. Only a few paintings of her were commissioned after 1884, but none of them caused an outrage probably because the audience was now mature. 

John Singer Sargent was ostracized from the art society and was forced to leave the country to find commissions. He even contemplated giving up painting altogether. Sargent fled to London and later on he went to the United States. He proceeded to have a very successful career but never made anything like the infamous portrait. In 1906 he was appointed as a full-time academician in the National Academy of Design in New York.

Where is the Portait of Madame X today?

After keeping “Portrait de Mme ***” in his studio for about 30 years he decided to sell it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916 and finally named it “Portrait of Madame X”. He requested the museum to keep the model’s identity a secret however the word spread. Another version of the painting is at Tate London where the position of the strap remains unfinished.

Study of Mme Gautreau, c.1884. John Singer Sargent 1856-1925. Tate.
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).

During this time Sargent remarked, 

“I suppose it’s the best thing I’ve ever done”.

John Singer Sargent (1916)

Sargent was friends with Edward Robinson, the director of The Met Museum. This friendship allowed him to sell the portrait to the Museum easily. Even though he had to flee France for this infamous painting, in the end, it did help him leave a mark in the art community. Today it is John Singer Sargent’s most recognizable work. 

Conclusion

While Madame X obeys the materialistic and superficial affinities of the gilded age, it forced the viewers out of their comfort zone. She was clearly too modern and magnetic for the Parisian audience of the 1880s. The several rough sketches and incomplete paintings of Madame X demonstrate how an artist makes numerous seemingly trivial decisions about their work that ultimately make their art memorable.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is the portrait of Madame X controversial?

‘Portrait of Madame X’ by John Singer Sargent was first exhibited at the 1884 Paris Salon and caused an immediate stir. The model was Virginie Gautreau an infamous socialite known for her infidelities. Her clothes and pose were sexually suggestive and hinted at her immoral character. Moreover, when the painting was first presented, one of her sleeves was casually slipping off her shoulder making it too lewd for the audience of the time. The painting was vehemently criticized by art critics for its overpowering sensuality and exaggerated beauty standards. 

The painting reflected badly on both the artist and the model. Sargent was forced to leave the country and Madame Gautreau lost all respect in the eyes of society. 

What is the story behind the painting Madame X?

Portrait of Madame X is one of John Singer Sargent’s most controversial paintings. The model is Virginie Gautreau an elusive socialite famous for her beauty and extra marital affairs. 

Sargent painted her portrait in the hopes of becoming a famous artist but the painting was very negatively received. The painting was exceedingly sensual and even vulgar for the audience and tarnished the reputation of both the artist and the model. 

How much is Madame X painting worth?

John Singer Sargent sold the Portrait of Madame X to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916 for £1,000. Taking into consideration the inflation rate over the past 100 years, the amount is now equivalent to $106,000. 

However, over the years, the story of Madame X has become extremely popular and an art collector would definitely pay a lot more for the painting if it were to go on sale. 

Where is Madame X painting now?

Portrait of Madame X painting by John Singer Sargent has been in the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1916. 

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