American portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856- 1925) shocked the art world when he exhibited “Portrait de Mme…” at the Paris Salon of 1884. Gilded age attitudes of displaying stately wealth and status were temporarily abandoned for a background of sparse mystery and overtly ethereal sexual energy. An homage to ancient times with a Hellenistic hairstyle and tiara of the Roman huntress Diana, the mysterious woman in the painting was immediately recognized as Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, a socialite and wife of French banker
Pierre Gautreau. Known for her personal style and supposed infidelities, Sargent’s daring portrait of Mme Gautreau was intended to cement his place in Parisian high society. Instead, its reception dashed Sargent’s hopes of any career in Paris, forcing him to move to London, and finally New York. The Paris Salon saw the pose as too suggestive, and the falling strap from her right shoulder was scandalous—a feature which Sargent would later paint over to remedy. The scandal even shook Gautreau’s family, who demanded the painting be removed from the Salon.
After arriving in New York, the retitled “Madam X” was considered a master work, highlighting Sargent’s skill in transforming his subjects into objects of captivation. The work is defined by the high contrast between the pale skin and the darkness of the dress and background (chiaroscuro), as well as the iconic pose that displays the elegant contours of her profile. Her uncomfortable contortion reveals her shapely form, but proved difficult and painful to the reportedly “lazy” model, who demanded months between modeling sessions. Madam X is one of the most emblematic works that has experienced both condemnation and celebration. However, upon selling the work to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916 Sargent remarked, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”
Shown photographed is Kat from Robin Rile Fine Art.
“The Scandalous Madame X ” text and photo copyright of Robin Rile Fine Art.