Madame X: The story behind one of the world's most famous paintings

One of the things that I am grateful for is that I live in a city with one of the world's foremost art museums, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the cost is $20, it is suggested, not fixed, so tourists and residents can pay what they can afford. Since I'm broke, I pay the bare minimum. Still it is worth it to spend time in a museum that is the largest in the US, with a collection that rivals the Louvre.

And one of the most visited paintings in the museum is John Singer Sargent's portrait of Madame X. Whenever I visit the museum, I always have to head over to the American wing to pay a visit. There's something about the painting that just draws you in. Perhaps it is the haughty expression of the subject's face turned in profile, or the sexiest dress ever seen on a Victorian. Seriously I had no idea that they wore dresses that erotic back then before I saw this painting. Her copper hair, her white white skin with the faint touches of red on the ears and lips, and the tiny crescent in her hair are just magical.

Perhaps it is the enigma of who she was and why she was called Madame X, and not by her real name. For years, I've been dyirn got know more about this woman. Thanks to Deborah Davis' splendid book, Strapless, everyone can now find out more about Virginie Amelie Gautreau and the creation of Madame X. The book is a dual biography of both Amelie and Sargent, from their early lives, until the prophetic decision to have Sargent paint her portrait.

Virginie Amelie Avegno was born in New Orleans, LA, of French creole parents on January 29, 1859 (making her an Aquarius). Her father Anatole Avegno fought bravely in the Civil War and was wounded at the battle of Shiloh in 1862 when Amelie was only three years old. Unfortunately he died of his wounds, leaving her mother a widow with two small daughters. After her younger daughter Valentine's death in 1866, her mother decided to leave the sad memories behind and move the family to Paris. As a French creole, Marie Virginie spoke French probably better than she spoke English and both the Avegnos and the Ternants (Marie Virginie's family) had long kept apartments in Paris, spending several months of the year there. Although the Civil War devastated many families, the Avegnos still had plenty of money, so Amelie grew up in the lap of luxury, strictly chaperoned by her mother. A few years after their arrival, the Second Empire was swept away in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. The Third Republic meant that the old aristocracy was now out of favor, and bankers and businessmen held the power in politics and society. This meant that Amelie, as an American, had a better chance at making a good match.

At the age of 19, Amelie married Pierre-Louis Gautreau who was 40. Called Pedro, his family had made their money in not just banking and shipping, but also in importing bat guano from Chile. Now that Amelie was properly married, she could start breaking the rules. She could read what she wanted, so out without a chaperone, and have affairs as long as she was discreet. Amelie soon set out to conquer Parisian society. Luckily for Amelie she was incredibly striking with copper colored hair, pale white skin, and a Roman nose. Because her skin was so pale, she tinted her ears, cheeks and lips with rouge and filled in her eyebrows with a mahogany pencil. The fashions of the times decreed that most women should dress like an upholstered sofa. Amelie decided to dress in a way that suited her more curvaceous figures, wearing loose clothing in pastel colors that called attention to her swan-like neck and her soft white shoulders. She wore her hair in a simple grecian knot adorned with a little diamond crescent. Within months, Amelie was a sensation in Paris.

In 1879, Amelie and Pedro had their only child, a daughter named Louise. Soon as she could, Amelie was back in the social whirl of Paris night-life. She appeared everywhere and anywhere, a Anglo-Parisian 'It' girl. Within three years, Amelie's fame spread from Europe to America. In 1880, a reporter for the New York Herald newspapaer wrote a story about her called "La Belle Americaine: A New Star of Occidental Loveliness Swims into the Sea of Parisian Society." Not everyone loved Amelie. Gossips sneered and called her "A Professional Beauty," suggesting that Amelie worked at her appearance when a woman of her glass was not supposed to work at anything. But there was one group that adored Amelie above all others and that was the artists who clamored for the chance to paint or sculpt her unconventional beauty. One artist, an American named Edward Simmons, proclaimed her a goddess and confessed that he "could not help stalking her as one does a deer."

Amelie knew that she had to choose the creator of her first major portrait with major care. It was as important as choosing the right dress or the right hairstyle. She couldn't just trust anyone unless she was sure that he would create a masterpiece. It turned out that the man who would make her famous was another expatriate American living in Paris, John Singer Sargent.

At the time that Amelie met Sargent, he was 28 and had already had a great deal of success as a painter. Although he was American, he was actually born in Florence in 1859. His father Fitzwilliam Sargent was a doctor from Philadelphia and his mother Mary Newbold was of an artistic temperment. After the death of their first child, Sargent's mother had a nervous breakdown and convinced her husband that she could only recuperate in Europe. Thus beginning an almost thirty year odyssey of wandering from one European country to another to save money.

From childhood, Sargent showed prodigious talent as an artist. Fortunately he had parents who were sensitive to his needs. In 1874, the Sargents settled in Paris so that Sargent could study art. He began to study with the noted artist and portrait painter Carolus-Duran. Sargent had a prodigious work ethic, he was shy and taciturn, and seemed much older than he actually was. Despite the fact that he didn't exactly fit in with his more high-spirited bohemian class-mates, he began to make friends. It helped that he was so supremely talented, that his fellow class-mates were in awe of him. One student described him as "one of the most talented fellows I have ever come across: his drawings are like the old masters'."

When he took the exam for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he passed on the first try, which unusual particularly for an American. Sargent decided early on that he would be a portrait painter, mainly because he needed to make money to support his parents and his two sisters. After returning from his first trip to America in 1876, he began preparing for his first submission to the prestigious Salon, the art world's equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival. Every year, hundred of artists as well as art students submitted work for the Salon. The show ran 6-8 weeks, and the entire art world not to mention Parisian society attended. Having a painting accepted and wear it was hung, could make or break an artist. In 1877, his first painting of a young woman named Fanny Watts was not only accepted but hung where the crowds could see it. Sargent had arrived.

Over the next several years, his reputation grew but Sargent knew that he needed to paint something or someone that would take his career to the next level. Sargent was determined to paint Amelie Gautreau. He speculated that if his painting of her was a success, soon all of fashionable Paris would follow in her dainty footsteps. Unfortunately neither Sargent nor Amelie could imagine the public reaction to the portrait that he painted of her. After Amelie agreed to pose, Sargent found that she had the attention span of a gnat. He was also slightly infatuated with her, and that led to a kind of block in getting the painting on canvas. It wasn't until his infatuation with her died, that he was able to create. He personally went through her wardrobe and chose the black dress that she wears in the portrait.

When Amelie first saw the finished portrait, she was pleased with Sargent's depiction of her. While Sargent had doubts and worries about the painting, she was sure that it would be a sensation and that she would get more attention than ever. Sargent's success would be her success, when Paris would formally acknowledge his talent and her beauty. An early review in Le Gaulois had called Madame X "remarkable, of rare distinction and interest."

To Sargent and Amelie's horror, the public reacted differently. They thought that she looked monstrous and decomposed. The dress suggested to viewers that she wasn't wearing a petticoat underneath. The falling strap and lack of any adornment, (Amelie wore no jewelry apart from the diamond crescent in her hair), made it seem as if she were naked. She looked shameless and shocking. Women were particularly vocal in their disapproval. Amelie was in despair at the reaction to the portrait. Amelie's family tried to convince Sargent to remove the portrait from the Salon but he refused. He told Amelie's mother that he had painted exactly what he saw. Madame X with its subject's artificial pallor and stylized pose was an accurate reflection of the woman. Of course, there was no chance now that the Gautreau's would be buying the portrait.

Madame X garnered Sargent his first bad reviews as an artist. The critic for L'Evenement lambasted the painting: "Mr. Sargent made a mistake if he thinks he expressed the shattering beauty of his model." Other critics called the painting 'vulgar' and him 'spineless.' Sargent's career now hung by a thread. When Sargent asked for permission to remove the portrait so that he could retouch it by raising the fallen strap, he was refused. Meanwhile, Amelie and the painting was caricatured in Le Charivari and the painting was satirized in everything from mock advertisements to spurious letter campaigns.

Amelie went into hiding until the scandal blew over. Meanwhile Sargent reclaimed the portrait after the Salon was over and returned it to his studio where he finally got the chance to raise the strap. Still he had no intention of exhibiting the painting, even retouched. It sat in his studio for years, while Sargent moved to England for several years to paint. When Amelie finally reappeared in Parisian society, she discovered that her days as an "It" girl had passed. She was no longer of public interest. Over the years, she had other portraits painted of her, but not ever created the stir that Madame X had. As her beauty diminished, Amelie became a virtual recluse. She had become the female equivalent of Dorian Gray, tyrannized by her own image, forced to live in the shadows of Madame X. She died, forgotten, in 1915.

Sargent, on the other hand, weathered the storm much better. As the years passed, Madame X gained in cachet. He discovered there were other women like Isabella Stewart Gardner who would be happy to be painted as seductive. For a time, he moved back to the States, to New York where he had a studio on Washington Square, painting the portraits of Gilded Age, nouveau riche. He was soon commanding $3,000 a portrait. Still anyone who wanted to see Madame X had to come to Sargent's studio in Tite Street in London or in New York. In 1916, the year after Amelie's death, Sargent sold the painting to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1,000. Although his reputation has waxed and waned over the years, he now stands as one of America and the world's greatest artists.

Despite his many paintings, it is still Madame X that most people think of when they think of John Singer Sargent. Portrait painters are in some ways pyschiatrists, the best reveal the inner most workings of their subject. In Madame X, Sargent revealed an unattainable beauty and the decadent society she embodied. They are forever entwined.


Heather Carroll said…
I always thought that she was powdered dramatically and had neglected her ears! Now I feel tan just looking at her, and with my skin tone, that's saying something! I also didn't know Sargent sold it directly to the Met himself.

Another famous painting from the 19th century that was shunned at the time of its unveiling.
I found it interesting as well that he sold it to the Met and for so little money, considering he was making more than $3,000 a portrait by that time. Once Sargent got over his infatuation with Amelie he seems to have been able to see her as she was not, as he imagined her to be. He never had that level of infatuation with any of his subjects ever again.
Amelie's story is tragic, particularly the end where she alternately attempted to recreate the allure of her Sargent painting and hid from mirrors to deny her aging appearance. Sort of a reverse "Dorian Gray" it seems.
Thanks for thorough background on the lady. I first saw the lady Easter weekend of 1987 at Art Inst Chicago. They did retrospective of his work, and she is the one that lingers in memory.
Amelie's story is a classic example of what happens when a woman relies soley on her looks. Once those were gone, she felt that she had nothing to offer the world. I can't imagine what it must be like to be so admired, fawned over, and talked about, and then one day to wake up and find yourself irrelevant. In her later years, she regretted not having bought the painting from Sargent after all.
Kathy said…
John Singer Sargent is my absolute favorite artist. I have many of his prints framed throughout my house...including Madame X. My favorite, however, is Mr and Mrs Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. I actually have three prints of that my bedroom, in the guest bathroom and on the landing.

I enjoyed reading "Strapless". I was blog "surfing" and found your review. You captured the tone of the book perfectly. Another good book on the subject is "I am Madame X" by Gioia Diliberto. It is the fictionalized account of her life. I think you might enjoy it.
Thanks so much, Kathy. I haven't heard of "I am Madame X" but now I'm intrigued. I may just have to read it.
dave hambidge said…
"Portrait painters are in some ways pyschiatrists, the best reveal the inner most workings of their subject."

Wish I'd been one tenth as good a shrink as Sergeant was a painter!!


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