Famous paintings sometimes provoked scandals at the Paris Salon, the French government's official art exhibition and the most important venue during the eighteen century for exhibiting art paintings. But Madame X, a painting by John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925) rocked the city of Paris.
Sargent spent the majority of his career in Paris and London, where his flattering portraiture made him one of the wealthiest and most famous painters of this era.
And scandalous, too, after painting Madame X.
Madame Gautreau, born in New Orleans as Virginia Avegno in 1859, was a renowned Parisian beauty who
married a French banker. Like much of society, Sargent was mesmerized by her looks and believed her portrait would solidify his reputation in the Paris Salon.
It did, but not in a manner he anticipated or wanted.
Progress on this portrait was difficult because Madame X was a fidgety model, and Sargent repeatedly re-worked the canvas, contending that her beauty was "unpaintable".
John Singer Sargent. Madame X. Oil on canvas, 1883-84. 82 1/8" x 43 1/4". Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916 (16.53). Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When Madame X was finally completed and revealled at the Paris Salon of 1884, its reception was scathing.
Although identity of the subject wasn't revealed (hence the title Madame X), Madame Gautreau's distinctive profile made her recognizeable. Critics complained that her skin had lavender undertones (she apparently dusted herself with lavender powder) and that her right arm was oddly and unnaturally contorted.
These comments, however, paled in comparison to unanimous outrage over her dress: in Sargent's initial version of Madame X revealled at the Salon, her right strap had slipped off to bare her right shoulder. The decolletage, or plunging neck line, hinted to some viewers of sexual impropriety or infidelity. Gautreau's family was mortified, and after begging Sargent to withdraw the painting, he offered to repaint the offensive strap. The Salon, however, forbade him altering Madame X until the exhibition closed. In efforts to placate the public, Sargent ultimately repainted the strap, resulting in the portrait we now see.
Not surprisingly, John Singer Sargent eventually relocated to London.
Although Sargent is known for his lush, liquidy brushstrokes (shown to the right is another of his famous paintings), this quality is lacking in Madame X, likely due to his constant re-workings from a fidgetting model and a wayward strap.
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Oil on canvas. 87 3/8" x 87 5/8". Gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Julia Overing Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit, and Florence D. Boit in memory of their father, Edward Darley Boit, 19.124.
The extraordinary pose and outline of Madame X recall Velazquez, and make Madame X one of Sargent's most brilliant art paintings. Sargent apparently agreed -- when he sold Madame X in 1916 to the Metropolitan Museum, he wrote, "I suppose it is the best thing I have done."