By Essie Fox
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.