Joyeux anniversaire to painter, John Singer Sargent, who would have been 160 years old today! Born on January 12, 1856, Sargent evolved to become the most revered portrait painter of his generation. By a landslide, he is an À La Prochaine favorite, and his famed portrait, Madame X, is one of my favorite paintings and art scandals to date.
Voila! There she is. Painted in 1884, Madame X, features ex-patriot socialite, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, wife of a renowned French banker. Her unique beauty prompted a widespread demand by artists to capture her likeness. Sargent, also mesmerized by her unconventional allure, requested to paint her portrait. At the time, Sargent was a highly anticipated artist in Paris. His iconic portraiture captured the attention of the Salon, and his portrait of Gautreau would initially garner excitement with the general public. Since Paris was then the global art hub, this was exactly the kind of fame Sargent craved. Yet, he made a grave call in judgement with Gautreau. In his original depiction, he painted Gautreau’s dress strap slightly falling off of her shoulder. How seductive for a sophisticated Parisienne! The reception was abysmal. Everyone whispered and imagined a devious, sexual tryst between the married Gautreau and Sargent. The public was shocked and appalled. How could a woman of Gautreau’s social stature be portrayed as a temptress? The painting shattered her reputation. After immense pressure, Sargent finally repainted the shoulder strap to salvage the few hopeful specks for a future portrait painting career in Paris. However, this gesture was not enough. Though, it did gain him popularity back in America.
Madame X now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Do see it! Sargent’s portraits are a gift to be seen in person. If you cannot make that trip, fear not! You can find Sargent at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISG). The ISG has my second favorite Sargent painting, El Jaleo, shown below.
Author Deborah David recounts the Madam X infamy in her book, ‘Strapless’, which I have read three times. Yes, three. Friends, the story is THAT good.
There you have it. Now go have a slice of cake in the good name of art and scandal!
À la prochaine!