This painting – “Portrait of Madame X” – ruined the reputation of the model and caused the artist to flee the country. Keep reading to find out how it all went down…
“Madame X” is a portrait by John Singer Sargent, an American expatriate artist who was considered to be the leading portrait painter of his generation. He created about 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. In addition to his portraits, which exuded Edwardian-era luxury, he also was an excellent landscape artist.
John Singer Sargent
Sargent was born in Italy in 1856 to an American doctor and social climber mother. Even though Dr. Sargent and his wife didn’t have the financial means of the wealthy expatriates, they socialized on the edge of the upper class.
Because Sargent showed such great artistic talent, his mother ensured that he attended a prestigious Parisian atelier. He first applied for the city’s annual taste-making art exhibition, the Paris Salon, in 1877, with a portrait of his childhood friend, Frances Sherborne Ridley Watts.
After his success at the Salon, he began to receive more portrait commissions, and soon had a profitable career painting upper-class women, along with the occasional upper class man.
Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi
In 1881, Sargent was commissioned to paint a portrait of prominent gynecologist Samuel-Jean Pozzi, which he titled “Dr. Pozzi at Home”. In the painting, the doctor is dressed in particularly ornate loungewear – a long red robe tied with tassels, and pointy red-and-silver slippers as a scarlet curtain ripples behind him.
How does Dr. Pozzi fit into this story? We’ll get to that later. But first – who was Madame X?
Madame X – Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau
Although Sargent’s titled piece omitted the woman’s name, the public immediately recognized her as the Parisian socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who went by her middle name “Amélie”. Her story starts in America, when she was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1859 to European Creole parents.
She was the daughter of Anatole Placide Avegno, whose family was originally Italian, and his wife Marie Virginie de Ternant of Parlange Plantation, who was a descendant of French nobility. Amélie’s grandmother was Virginie de Ternant, founder of the plantation. Louisiana Senator and Judge Charles Parlange was her maternal uncle.
Anatole Avegno served as a major in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. He was the commander of the Avegno Zouaves of New Orleans, a cosmopolitan battalion which had soldiers from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds including French, Spanish, Mexican, Irish, Italian, Chinese, German, Dutch, and Filipino.
If you want to read more about the Avegno Zouaves, here is an excellent article from the Shiloh National Military Park: https://www.facebook.com/ShilohNMP/posts/virginie-amelie-avegno-gautreau-was-born-in-new-orleans-in-1859-to-marie-virgini/655414671215189/
Amélie was only three years old when her father died in 1862 in the Battle of Shiloh.
After five years of taking out loans to pay for their family plantation, along with the death of Amélie’s younger sister Valentine, Amélie’s widowed mother decided that enough was enough. In 1867, when Amélie was eight years old, she moved with her daughter to Paris.
Amélie was educated in Paris and introduced to French high society. She was considered to be a professional beauty, a woman who used her looks to progress through the ranks in society. And at age 19, she married Pierre Gautreau, a wealthy banker more than twice her age.
She was striking and had many admirers. American ex-patriot Edward Simmons wrote, “I remember seeing her, the noted beauty of the day, and could not help stalking her as one does a deer. Her head and neck undulated like that of a young doe. Every artist wanted to make her in marble or paint.”
When Amélie presented herself in French society, people would gather to witness her beauty, and she made the newspapers throughout France, England, and the United States, from Maine to California. With her fair skin, red, upswept hair, and shapely figure, she was repeatedly described in classical terms: “a statue of Canova transmuted into flesh and blood and bone and muscle.”
Even with all this recognition, Amélie, as an expatriate, was considered to be an outsider, and struggled to make it into the upper echelon of Parisian society. Tabloids took minimal notice of her, and her status as a Louisiana Creole woman of mixed European heritage held her back. Still, she and her mother were determined to get her name out there.
From the outside, it seemed like she had it all. But she always wanted more. She desired love and excitement, things that her husband simply couldn’t – or wouldn’t give her.
Amélie Avegno Gautreau, as one of Paris’s conspicuous beauties, was known for her uncorseted hourglass figure, alabaster skin, elegance, and style. A pale-skinned brunette with fine, cameo-like features, she used lavender-colored face and body powder, dyed her hair with henna, and colored her eyebrows. She also attracted a great deal of amorous attention – which she did not discourage. Her extramarital affairs were so well known that they became the subject of tabloid scandal sheets and gossip handbills.
Now, remember Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi in the long red robe above? I promised to tell you how he fits into this story. 🙂
John Singer Sargent paints Madame Amélie Gautreau
John Singer Sargent first met Madame Amélie Gautreau in 1881, during the time that he was painting Dr. Pozzi. The rumor is that Amélie was having an affair with Dr. Pozzi at the time, which is why she was at Dr. Pozzi’s home during his sitting for his portrait. Whether that rumor is true or not… I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Sargent was captivated by her beauty and decided that he had to paint her – not for a commission, but for his own satisfaction, and for the status that a portrait of this high-society beauty would bring to his career. His plan was to enter the portrait into the 1884 Paris Salon. He wrote to his friend Ben del Castillo: “I have 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.”
However, what seemed like an opportunistic move led John Singer Sargent to flee the country and destroyed Amélie’s reputation.
Madame Gautreau agreed to have her portrait painted by Sargent, and sat for him beginning in the winter of 1882–83 in Paris, and then in summer 1883 at Les Chênes, promising him she would “pose morning and night for a week or two”. But there were days when Sargent said that she seemed “quite bored and would like to be in Paris.”
Between her conflicting social engagements, tending to her daughter, and responding to her full domestic staff, Madame Gautreau grew weary and distracted by the process of having her portrait done. Sargent described her in his writings as “The unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau”.
He executed numerous studies before settling on the final composition, and continued to make adjustments to the canvas throughout the painting process.
Sargent openly admired Madame Gautreau’s use of cosmetics, especially the lavender-colored rice powder that she generously applied to her skin, along with the rouge that she applied to her ears. At the time, pink ears were said to represent purity. He loved to paint the more theatrical sitters, and wrote in favor of cosmetics, that he relished painting “a woman who had already painted herself.”
Once completed, the painting was stunning. Madame Gautreau leans against a table with her right hand, body facing forward, and her head to the side, a pose that is present and assertive, yet absent at the same time. She poses in a black satin dress with jeweled straps. Her small waist draws the eye down, to her hand holding a black fan that almost disappears into her dress.
A flash of white comes from her fourth finger, hinting at a wedding ring. Her pale skin contrasts with the dark brown background.
Her hairstyle is based on one of ancient Greece. She wears on her head a small tiara in the shape of a crescent moon, which could represent Diana, the roman goddess of the hunt, or more probably, a cleverly placed tribute to her birthplace, New Orleans, known as the Crescent City, in the state where her family held landed status.
In advance of the 1884 Paris Salon, the painting was praised by critics, and the French daily newspaper Le Faulois wrote that it “is said to be remarkable.”
The 1884 Paris Salon
But when the finished painting was hung at the Salon of 1884 with the title “Portrait de Mme ***”, it was reproached both by the general public, and by critics throughout Europe and the United States, and was the subject of a firestorm of outrage and contempt. One French critic wrote that if one stood before the portrait during its exhibition in the Salon, one “would hear every curse word in the French language.”
And what was so wrong with this painting?
Plenty, according to the critics.
First, there was her skin and makeup.
The exposure of so much of her whitened flesh was considered distasteful at best. Writers also questioned the decency of her makeup and coloration, exclaiming, “The hair is dyed, the flesh made-up,” and “She paints her ears rose and her hair mahogany. The eyebrows are traced in dark mahogany color, two thick lines.” One writer appreciated her “perfectly, austerely plain” black dress, but said that her face resembled “a female clown in a pantomime.”
It was widely agreed among critics that her lavender-powdered skin gave her a deathlike pallor, rather than the pure white, sculptural ideal. One critic, William Sharp of London’s Art Journal, stated, “The flesh painting – and Mr. Sargent has not stinted himself as to space – has far too much blue in it, and the result of the artist’s experiment or wilful indifference, whichever it is, more resembles the flesh of a dead than a living body.”
But by far the most outrageous problem was this strap:
The fallen right strap seriously offended French sensibility by blatantly boasting of Madame Gautreau’s reputation as a loose woman, which was made even worse by the presence of the wedding ring on her finger. This combination of the wedding ring and the bare shoulder made this portrait just too hot to handle. My goodness, how could the married woman give off such sensuality?
A firestorm of outrage ensued, and the end result was that Sargent was seen as having openly defied convention by flaunting Madame Gautreau’s immoral lifestyle.
Gautreau’s hysterical mother begged Sargent to remove the portrait from the Salon, which he refused to do.
Initially, Amélie was pleased with the painting. She wrote on a postscript on Sargent’s letter to their mutual friend, the writer and translator Emma Marie Allouard-Jouan, “Mr. Sargent made a masterpiece of the portrait, I am anxious to write it to you because I am certain he will not tell you.”
But after hearing the negative reactions of the press and of her panic-stricken, socially conscious mother, she turned against the painting.
Basically, this painting cemented Madame Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau’s reputation as a loose woman, and John Singer Sargent as a painter of loose women, which was at least as bad.
Outcome of the Scandal
It’s widely known that the fallout from this painting ruined the reputation of Madame Gautreau forever. But before you start feeling sorry for her, you should know that her position in the social space of Paris was only briefly lost. She promptly resumed her distinctive place in fashionable society as an icon of fashion and beauty, and three years after the Salon, made a theatrical debut (“to follow Mrs. Langtry’s example and go on the stage in earnest”), and went on to host and sing at parties as late as 1902.
The aftermath of the Salon had a far different result for Sargent.
Sargent defended his painting by saying that he painted Madame Gautreau “exactly as she was dressed,” and refused to remove the painting from the Salon as was demanded by her mother. Eventually he repainted the right strap to fit snugly on her shoulder, but unfortunately, the damage was already done.
His scandalous new position in society as a painter of loose women guaranteed that he would receive no more portrait commissions from wealthy upper class Parisian women. He wrote, “For a year or two in Paris, I had so few commissions, probably the effect of the Gautreau disaster.”
Sargent kept the portrait in his Paris atelier, and then took it with him to London, where he fled after the scandal. Later he had a successful career in Britain and America, and became one of history’s most famous portraitists. But he never dared to make anything quite as bold again.
In 1916, John Singer Sargent sold the infamous painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, asking them to maintain the anonymity of the woman. By this time he had changed the title to “Madame X”.
He left it in the hands of the Met, saying, “I suppose it’s the best thing I have ever done.”
Read more about Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau HERE.