When John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” Scandalized the Art World in 1884

Any­one who’s ever walked the red car­pet or posed for a high fash­ion shoot would count them­selves lucky to cre­ate the sort of impres­sion made by John Singer Sar­gent’s icon­ic por­trait of Madame X.

Though not if we’re talk­ing about the sort of impres­sion the paint­ing made in 1884, when the model’s haughty demeanor, plung­ing bodice, and unapolo­getic use of skin-light­en­ing, pos­si­bly arsenic-based cos­met­ics got the Paris Salon all riled up.

Most scan­dalous­ly, one of her gown’s jew­eled straps had slipped from her shoul­der, a cos­tume mal­func­tion this cool beau­ty appar­ent­ly couldn’t be both­ered to fix, or even turn her head to acknowl­edge.

Vir­ginie Amélie Aveg­no Gautreau, the New Orleans-born Paris socialite (social climber, some would have sniffed) so strik­ing­ly depict­ed by Sar­gent, was hor­ri­fied by her like­ness’ recep­tion at the Salon. Although Sar­gent had coy­ly replaced her name with an ellipses in the painting’s title, there was no doubt in view­ers’ minds as to her iden­ti­ty.

John Sar­gent, Evan Char­teris’ 1927 biog­ra­phy, shows Madame Gautreau very lit­tle mer­cy when recount­ing her attempts at dam­age con­trol:

A demand was made that the pic­ture should be with­drawn. It is not among the least of the curiosi­ties of human nature, that while an indi­vid­ual will con­fess and even draw atten­tion to his own fail­ings, he will deeply resent the same office being under­tak­en by some­one else. So it was with the dress of Madame Gautreau. Here a dis­tin­guished artist was pro­claim­ing to the pub­lic in paint a fact about her­self she had hith­er­to nev­er made any attempt to con­ceal, one which had, indeed, formed one of her many social assets. Her resent­ment was pro­found.

Sar­gent, dis­traught that his por­trait of the cel­e­brat­ed scene­mak­er had yield­ed the oppo­site of the hoped-for pos­i­tive splash, refused to indulge her request to remove the paint­ing from exhi­bi­tion.

His friend, painter Ralph Worme­ley Cur­tis, wrote to his par­ents of the scene he wit­nessed in Sargent’s stu­dio when Madame Gautreau’s moth­er rolled up, “bathed in tears”, primed to defend her daugh­ter:

(She) made a fear­ful scene say­ing “Ma fille est per­du — tout Paris se moque d’elle. Mon genre sera for­cé de se bat­tre. Elle mouri­ra de cha­grin” etc. 

(My daugh­ter is lost — all of Paris mocks her. My kind will be forced to fight. She will die of sor­row.) 

John replied it was against all laws to retire a pic­ture. He paint­ed her exact­ly as she was dressed, that noth­ing could be said of the can­vas than had been said of her appear­ance dans le monde etc. etc.

Defend­ing his cause made him feel much bet­ter. Still we talked it all over till 1 o’clock here last night and I fear he has nev­er had such a blow. He says he wants to get out of Paris for a time. He goes to Eng. in 3 weeks. I fear là bas he will fall into Pre‑R. Influ­ence wh. has got a strange hold of him, he says since Siena.

As Char­lotte, cre­ator of the Art Deco YouTube chan­nel, points out in a fre­net­ic overview of the scan­dal, below, Sar­gent came out of this fias­co a bit bet­ter than Madame Gautreau, whose dam­aged rep­u­ta­tion cost her friends as well as her queen bee sta­tus.

(In her essay, Vir­ginie Amélie Aveg­no Gautreau: Liv­ing Stat­ue, art his­to­ri­an Eliz­a­beth L. Block cor­rects Char­lot­te’s asser­tion that the paint­ing “destroyed Madame Gautreau’ life”. Con­trary to pop­u­lar opin­ion, with­in three years, she was mak­ing her the­atri­cal debut, host­ing par­ties, and was hailed by the New York Times as a “piece of plas­tic per­fec­tion.”‍)

Sar­gent did indeed decamp for Eng­land, where he found both cre­ative and crit­i­cal suc­cess. By century’s end, he was wide­ly rec­og­nized as the most suc­cess­ful por­trait painter of his day.

The por­trait of Madame Gautreau remained enough of a sore spot that he kept it out of the pub­lic eye for more than twen­ty years, though short­ly after its dis­as­trous debut at the Salon, he did take anoth­er swipe at it, repo­si­tion­ing the sug­ges­tive shoul­der strap to a more con­ven­tion­al­ly accept­able loca­tion, as the below pho­to, tak­en in his stu­dio in 1885 con­firms.

In 1905, he final­ly allowed it to see the light of day in a Lon­don exhi­bi­tion, with sub­se­quent engage­ments in Berlin, Rome and San Fran­cis­co.

In 1916, when the por­trait was still on dis­play in San Fran­cis­co, he wrote his friend Edward “Ned” Robin­son, Direc­tor of The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, offer­ing to sell it for £1,000, say­ing, “I sup­pose it is the best thing I have done.”

“By the way,” he added, “I should pre­fer, on account of the row I had with the lady years ago, that the pic­ture should not be called by her name.”

Even though Madame Gautreau had died the pre­vi­ous year, Robin­son oblig­ed, reti­tling the paint­ing Por­trait of Madame X, the name by which it and its glam­orous mod­el are famous­ly known today.

Read Eliz­a­beth L. Block’s fas­ci­nat­ing essay, “Vir­ginie Amélie Aveg­no Gautreau: Liv­ing Stat­ue” here.

Read about the dis­cov­er­ies Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art con­ser­va­tion­ists made dur­ing X‑radiography and infrared reflec­tog­ra­phy of the por­trait here.

Com­ple­tion­ists might even want to have a gan­der at Nicole Kid­man done up to resem­ble Madame X for a 1998 Vogue spread shot by Steven Meisel.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Scan­dalous Paint­ing That Helped Cre­ate Mod­ern Art: An Intro­duc­tion to Édouard Manet’s Olympia

When Pablo Picas­so and Guil­laume Apol­li­naire Were Accused of Steal­ing the Mona Lisa (1911)

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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