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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, November 2, 2003

John Singer Sargent's 'Madame X' Still Fascinates

In 1884, the great American portraitist John Singer Sargent was planning a bold career move by entering a portrait of the most famous Paris beauty of the day in the annual Salon competition. The lady's name was Virginie Gautreau, and the portrait came to be known as "Madame X."

Much to Sargent's and Gautreau's consternation, the portrait caused a huge scandal because Sargent had made the miscalculation of painting one of the straps of her black gown falling over his subject's rounded, porcelain-white shoulders. Her simple, form-fitting black gown threatened to slip down her well-sculpted figure."Madame X" is the subject of two books recently acquired by the library. Their publication coincides with a general rescuing of Sargent's previous reputation as an outmoded painter and unimaginative social climber.

The fact that Sargent's life was so interesting has not hurt him.

Born in Florence to American expatriate parents, he was both cosmopolitan and intellectual, as well as skillfully musical.

He lived as a bachelor, and he instilled his passion into his art.

Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis (Jeremy Tarcher, 2003).

Davis, a film writer and executive, has done a good job filling out the story behind the infamous portrait. Her book serves as an introduction to the lives of both Sargent and Gautreau and to the social mileau of fin-de-siecle Paris.

Virginie Gautreau was born in a prominent Creole New Orleans family and moved to Paris with her mother after the death of her father in the Civil War.

Gautreau was what was called in those days a "professional beauty." Her skin was so white it was rumored that she took arsenic. After the scandal caused by her portrait, her reputation and fame faded.

She even made the mistake of refusing to purchase Sargent's portrait of her, which the artist, shortly before his death, valued as his best work.

I Am Madame X: A Novel by Gioia Diliberto (Scribner, 2003).

Granted, this is fiction, but the Virginie Gautreau of this book is an entirely different person than the one found in Strapless.

Here, Gautreau is portrayed as a sweet girl whose faults can be traced to her mother's refusing to send her to school, which resulted in her growing up too fast. In her teens, she becomes pregnant by Dr. Samuel Pozzi, a gynecologist whose nickname was Dr. Love and who was himself the subject of one of Sargent's most famous portraits.

Her reputation is saved when her mother's male companion, a French businessman who had made his fortune in South America, consents to marry her. He gives her the freedom to pursue affairs with other men, and in this fictionalized version, Gau-treau's fame as a beauty only increases after her scandalous portrait is unveiled.

John Singer Sargent: His Portrait by Stanley Olson (St. Martin's Griffin, 2001).

Obviously, it is difficult to write the biography of a relatively obscure person such as Virginie Gautreau, but we are on firmer ground with the likes of John Singer Sargent. Still, he continues to be a mystery.

The late Olson, an interesting man in his own right, was a dandy, an aesthete and an expatriate who resided in London. His biography of Sargent is clever and well worth reading, and the best one of the artist to date. However, he, too, ultimately considers Sargent's art unimaginative and underestimates the emotional power of his portraits.

The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner by Douglass Shand-Tucci (HarperCollins, 1997).

Nowhere is this power more evident than in Sargent's portrait of Boston art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Gardner, a free-spirited and wealthy woman, was not put off by the notoriety of "Madame X." On the contrary, she wanted the artist to accomplish something similar for her. Sargent complied by again accentuating his subject's curves and by wrapping a string of pearls around her narrow waist.

Isabella Gardner, known to many as Mrs. Jack, thus enraged her husband, Jack Gardner, who stipulated that the painting was never to be publicly displayed until after his death. Isabella Gardener went on to accumulate a distinguished collection of Italian Renaissance art with the help of Bernard Berenson and designed, and built an art museum in Boston in the form of a Venetian palazzo.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.