Friday, 24 August 2012


By Essie Fox

Sargent with his painting of 'Madame X'

Virginie Gautreau was an American woman who married a wealthy French banker, living with him in Paris where her glamour and beauty were so renowned that the artist, John Singer Sargent, wrote a letter to one of his friends in which he expressed, “...a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. If you are ‘bien avec elle’ and will see her in Paris, you might tell her I am a man of prodigious talent.”

In the June of 1883, the prodigiously talented young man was invited to visit with Virginie at her family's estate in Brittany. There, sketches were made for a final portrait where Sargent worked on a canvas that was almost seven feet (2 meters) in height, hoping that way to ensure the greatest attention when it was presented in Paris at the Salon of 1884. 

But whereas the model agreed with the artist that his painting was a masterpiece, Virginie's own mother was scandalised, demanding the portrait never be shown. The Salon members were just as outraged, and all because of the fact that a strap on Virginie’s gown had been depicted as fallen away from her shoulder, suggesting an air of decadence and sexual availability.
Sargent repainted his model’s gown with the strap restored to its rightful position, but the damage was already done. Reviews were disappointing. Madame Gautreau's reputation was lost, and even though Sargent withdrew the work and subsequently named it as Madame X, such was the affect upon his career that the artist left Paris in ignominy to set up a studio in London.

In England Sargent achieved great success, but he never lost faith in 'Madame X', even going so far as to write, “I suppose it is the best thing that I have ever done.” 

He refused to hide the work away and the painting was regularly displayed in various exhibitions until it was eventually sold it to the American Metropolitan Museum of Art for the sum of $1000. 

Goodness knows what it would be worth today.

A full-sized sketch of 'Madame X' remains on display in London's Tate Britain, where one of the straps on Virginie’s gown is still 'salaciously' removed.

Essie Fox's new novel, Elijah's Mermaid (to be published in November 2012) revolves around the work of a Victorian artist - some of his paintings being viewed as controversial and decadent, though later generations will consider them to be masterpieces.


Caroline Lawrence said...

What a fab post, Essie! I love that a slipped-down strap could have such ramifications.

(I also love that this post was short enough to read in a few minutes. Lovely nugget to start the day.)

Leslie Wilson said...

Tough on Madame Gautreau, though, and surely Sargent must have known what he was doing? That isn't to say that I don't greatly admire his work - I do - but I think artists can sometimes be pretty ruthless - writers included - with the people they choose to depict. Look at DH Lawrence and Jessie Chambers! Her memoir does rather set the record right...but do we ever hear what Madame Gautreau thought? Great post.

adele said...

Oh my goodness, what a lovely post! I adore this painting...never knew its history. Thanks Essie. I lust after that dress but only if I had the body to go in it. Body first, dress next. Gorgeous!

H.M. Castor said...

Brilliant post - brilliantly short, sweet & fascinating, as Caroline said. I love the position of the hand that leans on the table - a very particular kind of bend in the wrist and fingers; somehow even more life-like in the unfinished version than the finished one. Lovely, Essie - thank you!

Joan Lennon said...

The man really did have prodigious talent - and who needs a slipping strap to get that she was a sexy woman? Thanks for this!

The Virtual Victorian said...

Thank you!

I really love Sargent's work. I think he's one of my favourite artists. Such a scope to his work, and some of the 'society' portraits really are stunning. But how strange to think that the French could be so prudish. I wonder if it was because the model was such a prominent figure in society. There really were far more daring and titillating paintings, but then they were often based on ancient myths where naked abandon was somehow more accepted, and where models were often much poorer - even prostitutes.

Sue Purkiss said...

I love his paintings too. Great story - look forward to the book!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I've always adored this particular painting. It's the one that stays in my head when I think of Sargent. Great to know its history, Lovely post, Essie... thank you.