John Singer Sargent’s Scandalous Paintings: An Introduction to Madame X and Dr. Pozzi at Home

Hen­ry James, per­haps the most famous Amer­i­can expa­tri­ate nov­el­ist of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, won a great deal of his fame with The Por­trait of a Lady. John Singer Sar­gent, per­haps the most famous Amer­i­can expa­tri­ate painter of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, won a great deal of his fame with a por­trait of a lady — but not before it seemed to kill his illus­tri­ous career at a stroke. When it was first shown to the pub­lic at the Paris Salon of 1884, Sar­gen­t’s Por­trait of Madame X drew a range of reac­tions from bit­ter dis­missal to near-vio­lent anger. But today, as Great Art Explained host James Payne says in the new video above, “it is gen­uine­ly hard to see what the fuss was about.”

“Twen­ty years before, in 1865, Manet had shown Olympia at the Salon, to a scan­dal­ized Paris. So why the shock now? The dif­fer­ence was that Manet’s Olympia was a pros­ti­tute, like the women in Toulouse-Lautrec’s paint­ing also on dis­play in 1884. But Madame X was part of French high soci­ety.” She was, all those first view­ers would have known, the socialite, banker’s wife, and “pro­fes­sion­al beau­ty” Vir­ginie Amélie Aveg­no Gautreau. Her rumored pen­chant for infi­deli­ties would­n’t have been unusu­al for her par­tic­u­lar place and time, but her back­ground as the New Orleans-born daugh­ter of a Euro­pean Cre­ole fam­i­ly cer­tain­ly would have.

Behold­ing Madame X, “Parisians were forced to con­front their own deca­dence, which they pre­ferred not to acknowl­edge, and this was where Sar­gent went wrong. The salons were a sacro­sanct part of French cul­ture, and he, a for­eign­er, was flaunt­ing immoral­i­ty in their faces with a paint­ing of anoth­er for­eign­er, an exot­ic one at that.” He’d already stirred up a cer­tain amount of con­tro­ver­sy three years ear­li­er with Dr. Pozzi at Home, anoth­er full-length por­trait that por­trayed its sub­ject – the high­ly accom­plished and noto­ri­ous­ly hand­some gyne­col­o­gist Samuel-Jean Pozzi — in a man­ner whose sheer infor­mal­i­ty verges on the con­cu­pis­cent.

Payne thus regards Dr. Pozzi and Madame X as “male-female ver­sions of the same type. They are both flam­boy­ant pea­cock fig­ures, with a streak of van­i­ty and a knack for seduc­tion. There is some­thing in the way they are posed which is uncon­ven­tion­al. They have an indi­rect gaze, and they both have supreme con­fi­dence verg­ing on arro­gance.” That only Sar­gent could have — or, at least, would have — cap­tured and trans­mit­ted those qual­i­ties with such direct­ness was­n’t appre­ci­at­ed quite so much at the time. Ostra­cized in Paris, where he’d been a sought-after por­traitist to the wealthy, he packed up Madame and set off for Lon­don, where he soon rebuilt his career. The advice to do so came from none oth­er than Hen­ry James, who knew a thing or two about advan­ta­geous relo­ca­tion.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How John Singer Sar­gent Became the Great­est Por­traitist Who Ever Lived — by Paint­ing “Out­side the Lines”

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

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

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Art His­to­ry School: Learn About the Art & Lives of Toulouse-Lautrec, Gus­tav Klimt, Frances Bacon, Edvard Munch & Many More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • Mary F. Burns says:

    What an amaz­ing and thor­ough overview of this great painter! I am very famil­iar with Sar­gen­t’s life and work, but had nev­er thought about the two star­tling por­traits of Mme X and Dr. Pozzi as a seduc­tive pair­ing. Mar­velous! My his­tor­i­cal nov­el “Por­traits of an Artist” includes both sub­jects “talk­ing” about Sar­gent as he paint­ed them, along with sev­er­al oth­ers who sat for Sar­gent, in a “Rashomon” type of char­ac­ter­i­za­tions that attempt to dis­cov­er the depth and per­son­al­i­ty behind this genius of a painter. This Great Art Explained seg­ment explores the same themes excel­lent­ly. Thanks so much, Col­in Mar­shall, for this visu­al and intel­li­gent treat!

  • John Fredette says:

    My part­ner and I first saw Dr Pozzi on loan in Wash­ing­ton about 40 years ago. We were amazed. Fif­teen years lat­er I com­mis­sioned a full sized repro­duc­tion in oil. In the mean­time we had framed the Met poster of Madame X. We nev­er hung them togeth­er since they were not in scale but we always saw them as a kind of pair. And enjoyed liv­ing with them. I still see Madame X every day. Good to know after all this time there is an art his­tor­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for see­ing them as a pair.

  • Darnell says:

    I am hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ty find­ing a paint­ing done by John singer sergeant. The paint­ing is of a French pros­ti­tute Giv­ing her­self a shot in the leg above her hose. She is engaged in “Shoot­ing up”..Using a glass syringe.
    I believe this a very impor­tant paint­ing for its social con­tex­tu­al his­to­ry; of Paris, of low­er social strata,and the impli­ca­tions of moral finan­cial posi­tions. Silk hose and garter belts in the era of Art Nuvo. Sar­gen­t’s work doc­u­ment­ed street life and all social stra­ta as well. It’s also impor­tant in the study of addic­tion. Where is the paint­ing and where is there a pic­ture of it.
    Dar­nell S.

    P. S. I thought your inter­est in ‘Madam X’was well researched..that is why I called
    on you.

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