Madame X by John Singer Sargent
The painting that is commonly considered to be John Singer Sargent's masterpiece nearly caused his ruin before his career even had a chance to skyrocket. What even fewer people know is that it arguably did destroy the social status if not the entire life of it's subject, then twenty three year old Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau. Amelie Avegno was a New Orleans native of French descent who transplanted to Paris along with her widowed mother at about the same time a young American painter John Singer Sargent began to study art in the City of Lights. Sargent met the young socialite who had married a man nearly twice her age as a way to continue her climb in social status as well as for the financial security it brought. Sargent was smitten and immediately wanted to paint this girl that was considered a stunning beauty though her unusually pale complexion and rather prominent nose were not conventionally attractive. At the same time, rumors of Gautreau's moral improprieties also swirled about the Parisian social circles which would ultimately add fuel to the oncoming scandal. Sargent, trying to build upon the previous year's success at the Salon, spent the better part of a year doing studies and working on the nearly seven foot tall full length portrait.
The unfinished copy of Mrs Gautreau hangs in London's Tate Gallery
The painting depicts Mrs. Gautreau in a sleek black dress with jeweled shoulder straps, a look that is often imitated and now considered classic. Sargent labored over the painting and eventually began a second version of the portrait because he felt the original had become overworked and wanted a "fresh version" to hang at the 1884 Paris Salon. Sargent's friend and teacher Carolus-Duran convinced Sargent that the painting was indeed his best work and he ultimately exhibited the original.
An engraving of the portrait as it appeared in the 1884 Salon
When unveiled, the painting was met with scorn and ridicule. Sargent had misjudged the reaction to what he thought would be a bold and daring artistic move- painting a strap that had slipped from it's proper position atop Madame Gautreau's porcelain shoulder. Instead of praise and accolades, venomous tirades about the overtly sexual nature of the painting filled the Parisian papers. Not only was the painting and it's painter vilified, but much of the negative reaction was aimed squarely at the sitter. Criticisms like "vulgar" and "spineless", "monstrous" and "detestable" were leveled at Mrs. Gautreau herself. Reviews ran the gamut of negativity such as "the profile is pointed, the eye microscopic, the mouth imperceptible, the neck sinewy, the right arm lacks articulation, the hand is deboned. The decolletage of the bodice doesn't seem to make contact with the bust- it seems to flee any contact with the flesh." Another critic stated that "this portrait is simply offensive in it's insolent ugliness and defiance of every rule of art". Both the artist and subject were shocked at the negativity of the reception. Sargent, rather than pull the painting from the Salon, which would seem an acknowledgement of his failure, elected to let the painting hang for the duration of the show. Incensed by the public flaying of Amelie's looks and character, the Gautreaus refused to purchase the painting. The public opinion of Mrs. Gautreau plummeted and what was once one of Paris' most visible "it girls" became a mockery and a caricature of herself. Unable to bear the brunt of such shame, she eventually exiled herself from Parisian high society circles. Sargent, reputation damaged, retreated to the friendlier shores of England as well as his native America to repair his career to which he succeed brilliantly, though never again as daringly.
Madame X hung in Sargent's studio for decades after the disasterous1884 Salon
Sargent repainted the strap in it's proper position as we know it today and kept the portrait in his studio for the next three decades, eventually loaning it out to various shows where it finally received acclaim as one of the most exquisite portraits of the century. Sargent finally sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916 after the death of Amelie Gautreau. Whether out of respect for her memory or spite, the artist insisted the painting be thereafter known as "Madame X". The lasting fame that eluded Amelie Gautreau in life has been permanently erased as her image lives on anonymously in John Singer Sargent's masterpiece.
A more complete account of this saga can be read in Deborah Davis' compelling book "Strapless- John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X"