On every Shady Ladies tour of the Metropolitan Museum, at least one person tells me that John Singer Sargent’s Madame X is their favorite painting. And you can easily see why. It’s an arresting image, ambiguous and mysterious, and it creates for the viewer an image of a dramatic and complex woman. There are strange contradictions in it. For instance, the woman’s body is turned toward the viewer, but her face is turned—almost wrenched—to the side. Her skin is astonishingly white, her profile exaggeratedly aquiline, yet her hands are stubby and red, and her ear is inelegant and red as well—and very noticeable. And there are things that are hard to figure out: could her skin really be so extremely pale, or are her face, neck, shoulders, chest, and arms all thickly made up?
In short, she is both beautiful and mysterious—the combination that made Cleopatra famous. She is a woman it’s hard to stop looking at, and of course, what makes her more fascinating is that she’s so demonstratively not interested in you. She seems to have spent considerable effort creating her dramatic appearance, and to take great pride in it, but she makes clear it is not for the viewer. Perhaps it is for someone else—her husband? or a lover? Or perhaps it is for her own private satisfaction.
Most people know that the painting created a scandal when it was first displayed at the Paris Salon in 1884. In fact, it was a huge scandal: the chattering classes were scandalized, reviewers attacked the painting, there were cartoons of it, and so on. Think Janet Jackson’s clothing malfunction. It was a scandal, and very damaging both for the subject of the painting and the artist.
The subject was a woman named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, or more usually simply Amélie Gautreau. She was, surprisingly, American, that is from the French-speaking New Orleans planter aristocracy. When her family was temporarily inconvenienced by the Civil War, she and her mother moved to their second home, Paris, where she married a wealthy man and began a career as a society belle.
She was a somewhat racy personality, possibly the lover of the famous Dr. Pozzi, also the subject of one of Sargent’s greatest portraits (and supposedly the original for Dr. Cottard in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past). And she was a huge subject of gossip, gossip columns, and so on—and famous for many of the things we see in this painting, such as her extremely white skin and her long, aristocratic nose. Sargent at the time was a young painter (also American by family, though he had grown up in Europe and scarcely even been to America) becoming well-known in Paris for his dazzling portraits.
He was fascinated by this famous beauty, and rather than waiting for a portrait commission, as a typical artist would have, he waged a campaign to convince her to let him paint her. For both of them, this portrait was important: it was to confirm Sargent as the preeminent portrait painter in Paris and Gautreau as Paris’ great beauty of the moment.
Unfortunately, their hoped-for succès de scandale was a scandale instead. Gautreau’s reign as a beauty was seriously damaged, and Sargent’s career was more so. The family refused to buy the painting, which was a financial blow, but worse, his portrait commissions dried up: who after all wants to be painted by a man who created a huge scandal at the salon last year? In fact, this painting caused a major shift in Sargent’s career: he ended up moving to England and ultimately the US, never returning to Paris. Sargent named it Madame X, I think, to give the painting a life beyond its scandal and the broken painter/client relationship.
The grounds for the scandal are mysterious to a modern eye. The painting was attacked as indecent, because Gautreau seemed “insufficiently dressed” to contemporary viewers. This is hard for us to credit, but one hint as to the problem is provided by a photo of the original portrait, as it hung in the Salon. In this photo, we see that one of Gautreau’s shoulder straps hangs off her shoulder, as if it has slipped.
Sargent must have thought this was the main cause of the scandal, because he repainted the strap when he took the painting home after the Salon. In my view, this detail (along with other details he could not change—the way her dress slips a bit toward the hanging strap, and her breasts consequently rise above her low-cut gown) unsettled the boundary between dressed and undressed, and possibly the boundary between the beau monde and the demimonde.