Old Masters Academy

Madame X by John Singer Sargent

When Madame X was shown at the Salon of 1884 it became instantly a salacious painting and a scandal in French society as a result of its sexual suggestiveness of her pose and the pail pasty color of her skin. The “X” ofMadame X was actually Madame Gautreau (1859-1915) who’s  reputation was apparently destroyed and John left France shortly to never truly regain his former standing as the darling of Paris.


Madame X John Singer Sargent -- American painter 1884 Metropolitan Museum, New York Oil on canvas 208.6 x 109.9 cm (82 1/8 x 43 1/4 in.)

The size of the painting is enormous, measuring 82 inches  by 43 inches or nearly seven feet tall (2 meters) — and with the underlying sensuality of the painting, in the time that it was done (if it isn’t still to some degree today),  almost threatening to the viewer.

When I first read about this painting, I was struck by the notion that if the painting was so damning to her reputation, why hadn’t Madame Gautreau nor her husband ever destroyed it; which seemed to tell me that she must have secretly loved it; but this was not the case. The uproar over the painting, especially from her family made her hate it.

So what gives?

On the 15th of November ’98  I went to the library and ordered a number of books. The following is from John Sargent, by Hon Evan Charteris, first published by Benjamin Blom, Inc. NY, in 1927, two years after the death of Sargent:

(Hon Evan Charteris)

“In 1883 Sargent had begun a portrait which was to have a good deal of influence on his career. As far back as 1881 he met Madame Gautreau in Paris society, where she moved rather conspicuously, shining as a star of considerable beauty, and drawing attention as to one dressed in advance of her epoch. It was the period in which in London the professional beauty, with all the specialization which the term connoted, was recognized as having a definite role in social hierarchy. Madame Gautreau occupied a corresponding position in Paris. Immediately after meeting her, Sargent wrote to his friend del Castillo to find out if he could do anything to induce Madame Gautreau to sit [for] him. ‘I have.’ he wrote, ‘a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. If you are ‘bien avec elle’ and will see her in Paris you might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent.’

“The necessary preliminaries were arranged, and the disillusionment seems to have begun quickly, for after the first few sittings he wrote to Vernon Lee from Nice on February 10 (1883): ‘In a few days I shall be back in Paris, tackling my other ‘envoi,’ the Portrait of a Great Beauty. Do you object to people who are ‘fardeés’[15] to the extent of being uniform lavender or blotting-paper colour all over? If so you would not care for my sitter; but she has the most beautiful lines, and if the lavender or chlorate of potash-lozenge colour be pretty in itself I should be more than pleased.’

“In another letter, and again to Vernon Lee, he wrote: ‘Your letter has just reached me still in this country house (Les Chêes Parramé) struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gaureau.’

“Even when the picture was nearing completion he was assailed by misgivings. ‘My portrait!’ he wrote to Castillo, ‘it is much changed and far more advanced than when you last saw it. One day I was dissatisfied with it and dashed a tone of light rose over the former gloomy background. I turned the picture upside down, retired to the other end of the studio and looked at it under my arm. Vast improvement. The élancée figure of the model shows to much greater advantage. The picture is framed and on a great easel, and Carolus has been to see it and said: ‘Vous pouvez l’envoyer au Salon avec confiance.’[14] Encouraging, but false. I have made up my mind to be refused.’

“The picture was accepted for the Salon of 1884. Varnishing day did nothing to assure the painter. On the opening day he was in a state of extreme nervousness. It was the seventh successive year in which he had exhibited. Every Salon had seen the critics more favorable, the public more ready to applaud. But without suggesting that the critics and the public of Paris are fickle, it is probably fair to say that popularity, fame and reputation are more subject to violent fluctuations there than other European capitals. This, at any rate, was to be Sargent’s experience.

“The doors of the Salon were hardly open before the picture was damned. The public took upon themselves to inveigh against the flagrant  insufficiency, judged by prevailing standards, of the sitters clothing; the critics fell  foul of the execution. The Parisian public is always vocal and expressive.

The Salon was in an uproar. Here was an occasion such as they had not had sinceLe D’jeuner sur l’Herbe,  L’Olympia and theExhibition of Independents. The onslaught was led the lady’s relatives. 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 call 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 the distinguished artist was proclaimed to the public in paint a fact about herself which she had hitherto never made any attempt to conceal, one which had, indeed, formed one of her many social assets. Her sentiment was profound. If the picture could not be withdrawn, the family might at least bide its time, wait till the Salon was closed, the picture delivered, and then by destroying, blot it as an unclean thing from the records of the family. Anticipating this, Sargent, before the exhibition was over, took it away himself. After remaining many years in his studio it now figures as one of the glories of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.”
“Sargent, who was twenty-eight, had been working for ten years in Paris. The Salon of 1884 was to have been a culmination of his efforts. He had painted what is now recognized as a masterpiece, displaying excellence which he was perhaps never to surpass. It had been received with a storm of abuse. Paris, which had been smooth and well-disposed and encouraging, had turned, and like a child splintering a plaything, had dealt a violent blow at its recognized favorite. He was not in the least in doubt of his own art, but he was always sensitive to atmosphere, always easily affected by unsympathetic environment. Paris had awaken suddenly one May morning in an uncongenial mood, its friendliness hidden in clouds; the accord which prevailed between painter and public was at an end.”

“Vernon Lee summed it up this way: “ . . . it seemed as if for years, he was engrossed in perpetually dissatisfied (and, as regards to Parisian public, disastrous) attempts to render adequately the ‘strange, weird, fantastic, curious’ beauty of that peacock-woman, Mme. Gautreau.”(Page 250)

By 1906 Madame Gautreau had changed her opinion of the painting.  In a letter to Major Roller John writes:

    I think I know what Mme Gautreau wants . . .  the Kaiser who was such a dear,  thought her portrait the most fascinating woman’s likeness that he has ever seen, and that he wishes me to have an exhibition in Berlin
    of my things. I wrote that I was abroad and couldn’t manage it. But to tell you the truth, I don’t want to do it. It is a tremendous trouble for me to induce a lot of unwilling people to lend me their “pautrets” and Berlin does not attract me at all. So if you are taken into Mme. Gautreau’s confidence, and I wish you would tear your shirt for it, please discourage her from giving me the K.K. command.

    Yrs. sincerely,
    John S. Sargent”

The 1890’s saw la Belle Époque in full swing and accepted fashion, both in painting and in suggestive nature of Mme’s gown and pose had caught up. In ’91 Mme Gauthereau was again painted — this time by Gustave Courtoi in an obvious attempt at recreating the essential elements of John’s painting. As you can see, though the pose and dress is just as daring, it never reaches the same power.

Times had certainly changed. The thought that such a painting would even be considered a scandal had faded to black and in its place these paintings were deemed flattering to the subject; but John had moved on and had turned his attention towards America for his work. In 1916, as the painting was being exhibited at the Worlds Fair in San Francisco, he wrote his friend Edward Robinson who was by then the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

John worked intensely harder on this painting than any other submitted to the Salon to that date. He did a number of studies and drawingsin pencil, watercolors as well as oils. Even after the show, John began an unfinished copy of Madame X that now hangs at the Tate Gallery.

In order to fully understand the jeers from the public, it’s important to note that the painting, as we have it today, is altered from the original version! To add to the

salacious nature, the paining had been shown at the Salon with the right dress strap off her shoulder! A Photograph of the painting, as it was displayed, shows exactly how it looked. Numerous preliminary sketches also depicted her with the strap off — it was clearly part of her personality. Sargent made the adjustment after taking it back to his studio.

John Singer Sargent loved Beauty. “Indeed, [Vernon Lee would later say] I feel certain that his conscious endeavor, his self-formulated program, was to paint whatever he saw with absolute and researchful fidelity, never avoiding ugliness nor seeking after beauty. But, like most, though perhaps not all, supreme artists. John Sargent was not aware of what he was really about, nor in what manner his superficial verbal program was for ever disregarded by the unspoken, imperious synthesis of his particular temperament and gifts. Also like other painters of those . . . days, John Sargent did not know that seeing is a business of the mind, the memory and the heart, quite as much as of the eyes; and thevaleurs which the most stiff-necked impressionist could strive after were the values of association and preference. Now to his constitution, ugliness and vulgarity were negative values, instinctively avoided. In theory, John Sargent would doubtless have defended Manet for cutting some of his figures in half, and even decapitating them by the frame, let alone choosing to portray bounders and sots in ballet stalls and bars. I can almost hear him [arguing] for Renoir’s crowd of cads and shop-girls under umbrellas and for Degas’s magnificent lady in her bathroom, under the ministrations of a corn-cutter.”

But what set him apart from others, according to Vernon Lee, was “Sargent’s outspoken love of the exotic [and the] unavowed love of rare kinds of beauty, for incredible types of elegance like his Mme. Gautreau”

To me (Natasha), John Singer Sargent is a powerful and wonderful painter. He is a man who simply loved women in virtually each one of his portraits. His feelings radiates from them. But his complementary eye did not seem to have been just to women. The other portrait at the Nelson (Francisco Bernareggi) was years later of a friend of his. It is done in a style that the Gallery called “Free Form” and looks very impressionistic, maybe like Renoir. The portrait is a close-up of a man in his 20’s. I can’t describe it other than to say the man in the picture is simply gorgeous. He has thick flowing dark hair, flowing not too unlike what we’ve all seen in the drawing of Edgar Allen Poe (although fuller) with a dark full but youthful mustache. I don’t know if Madame Gautreau ever fully realized just how lucky she was but certainly . . . certainly, if it were not for the consternation of her contemporary public and her family, she must have been exceptionally pleased that her boldness was captured so perfectly by John Singer Sargent.

Now over a hundred years later, I chuckle to myself as I recall standing before his other work of Mrs. Wade, and  remembering the grand size and powerfulness of it all, commanding the viewers attention, the Painting of Madame Gautreau (Madame X) which hung in the Salon of 1884 must have just blown those people away!!!!!!!!!!!!

By: Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2003

Just out “Strapless: The Rise of John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X” by Deborah Davis

Source: http://jssgallery.org/paintings/Madame_X.htm

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