When John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” Scandalized the Artwork World in 1884


Anybody who’s ever walked the purple carpet or posed for a excessive style shoot would depend themselves fortunate to create the form of impression made by John Singer Sargent’s iconic portrait of Madame X.

Although not if we’re speaking concerning the form of impression the portray made in 1884, when the mannequin’s haughty demeanor, plunging bodice, and unapologetic use of skin-lightening, probably arsenic-based cosmetics obtained the Paris Salon all riled up.

Most scandalously, one among her robe’s jeweled straps had slipped from her shoulder, a fancy dress malfunction this cool magnificence apparently couldn’t be bothered to repair, and even flip her head to acknowledge.

Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, the New Orleans-born Paris socialite (social climber, some would have sniffed) so strikingly depicted by Sargent, was horrified by her likeness’ reception on the Salon. Though Sargent had coyly changed her identify with an ellipses within the portray’s title, there was little doubt in viewers’ minds as to her identification.

John Sargent, Evan Charteris’ 1927 biography, exhibits Madame Gautreau little or no mercy when recounting her makes an attempt at harm management:

A requirement was made that the image must be withdrawn. It’s not among the many least of the curiosities of human nature, that whereas a person will confess and even draw consideration to his personal failings, he’ll deeply resent the identical workplace being undertaken by another person. So it was with the gown of Madame Gautreau. Right here a distinguished artist was proclaiming to the general public in paint a reality about herself she had hitherto by no means made any try to hide, one which had, certainly, shaped one among her many social property. Her resentment was profound.

Sargent, distraught that his portrait of the celebrated scenemaker had yielded the other of the hoped-for constructive splash, refused to indulge her request to take away the portray from exhibition.

His good friend, painter Ralph Wormeley Curtis, wrote to his mother and father of the scene he witnessed in Sargent’s studio when Madame Gautreau’s mom rolled up, “bathed in tears”, primed to defend her daughter:


(She) made a fearful scene saying “Ma fille est perdu – tout Paris se moque d’elle. Mon style sera forcé de se battre. Elle mourira de chagrin” and so forth. 

(My daughter is misplaced – all of Paris mocks her. My type can be pressured to battle. She is going to die of sorrow.) 

John replied it was in opposition to all legal guidelines to retire an image. He painted her precisely as she was dressed, that nothing may very well be stated of the canvas than had been stated of her look dans le monde and so forth. and so forth.

Defending his trigger made him really feel significantly better. Nonetheless we talked it throughout until 1 o’clock right here final night time and I worry he has by no means had such a blow. He says he needs to get out of Paris for a time. He goes to Eng. in 3 weeks. I worry là bas he’ll fall into Pre-R. Affect wh. has obtained an odd maintain of him, he says since Siena.

As Charlotte, creator of the Artwork Deco YouTube channel, factors out in a frenetic overview of the scandal, under, Sargent got here out of this fiasco a bit higher than Madame Gautreau, whose broken popularity price her buddies in addition to her queen bee standing.

(In her essay, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau: Dwelling Statue, artwork historian Elizabeth L. Block corrects Charlotte’s assertion that the portray “destroyed Madame Gautreau’ life”. Opposite to well-liked opinion, inside three years, she was making her theatrical debut, internet hosting events, and was hailed by the New York Instances as a “piece of plastic perfection.”‍)

Sargent did certainly decamp for England, the place he discovered each artistic and demanding success. By century’s finish, he was widely known as essentially the most profitable portrait painter of his day.

The portrait of Madame Gautreau remained sufficient of a sore spot that he saved it out of the general public eye for greater than twenty years, although shortly after its disastrous debut on the Salon, he did take one other swipe at it, repositioning the suggestive shoulder strap to a extra conventionally acceptable location, because the under photograph, taken in his studio in 1885 confirms.

In 1905, he lastly allowed it to see the sunshine of day in a London exhibition, with subsequent engagements in Berlin, Rome and San Francisco.

In 1916, when the portrait was nonetheless on show in San Francisco, he wrote his good friend Edward “Ned” Robinson, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Artwork, providing to promote it for £1,000, saying, “I suppose it’s the smartest thing I’ve carried out.”

“By the way in which,” he added, “I ought to desire, on account of the row I had with the woman years in the past, that the image shouldn’t be known as by her identify.”

Though Madame Gautreau had died the earlier 12 months, Robinson obliged, retitling the portray Portrait of Madame X, the identify by which it and its glamorous mannequin are famously identified immediately.

Learn Elizabeth L. Block’s fascinating essay, “Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau: Dwelling Statue” right here.

Learn concerning the discoveries Metropolitan Museum of Artwork conservationists made throughout X-radiography and infrared reflectography of the portrait right here.

Completionists would possibly even wish to have a gander at Nicole Kidman carried out as much as resemble Madame X for a 1998 Vogue unfold shot by Steven Meisel.

Associated Content material 

The Scandalous Portray That Helped Create Trendy Artwork: An Introduction to Édouard Manet’s Olympia

When Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire Had been Accused of Stealing the Mona Lisa (1911)

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and writer, most not too long ago, of Inventive, Not Well-known: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Observe her @AyunHalliday.



Related Articles

Latest Articles