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Madame X: Scandal in Parisian High Society

Despite the ensuing social discomfort, there is nothing that spells success for an artist like a good scandal. It is an excellent means of obtaining both publicity in the present and remembrance in the future. Such is the case in the scandal that surrounded the painting Madame X, created by John Singer Sargent, no doubt contributed to his fame as an artist.

Although the enormous 82 x 43 inch oil portrait was originally entitled Portrait de Mme *** when it made its debut at the Paris Salon in 1884, the subject was known to be Virginie Gautreau. Born Virginie Angeu, she was an American expatriate whose beauty became celebrated in aristocratic circles of French society. Virginie subsequently married a wealthy French banker and attained a reputation for her infidelities as well as her beauty. Sargent had most likely seen Madame Gautreau by 1882 and expressed the desire to paint her in a letter to a friend. Less than two years later, a series of sittings was arranged and the portrait was begun.

Madame X, as the painting was later renamed, is a full length portrait of Madame Gautreau wearing a black evening dress. There are several notable features of the portrait that caused the outrage of Parisian high society at the debut of the painting. The most notable cause for scandal was the lowered position of one of the dress straps, a feature that was later repainted after the exhibition. Another is the contrast between the whiteness of Madame Gautreauís complexion as compared to the redness of her ear, indicating artificiality and the likely use of cosmetics which was generally disapproved of at the time. The painting also suggested that Madame Gautreau used henna, another type of cosmetic, to give color to her hair. Yet another feature to note is Madame Gautreauís pose: although compositionally graceful, it is definitely contrived and sexually suggestive. All of these features combined to create an image of artificial aristocratic beauty and an enticing but remote sexuality. Madame X was in essence the embodiment of the ďprofessional beauty.Ē

It is unlikely that Sargent intended to create such splash. Based upon the large number of sketches and studies he created in searching for the perfect pose, I think it is likely that he got quite wrapped up in creating a work of art that portrayed what he knew of Madame Gautreau based on her public reputation as well as his personal experience with her, giving little thought to the effect of his work on the public. But his intentions are not known. When Madame X made its debut, it was Madame Gautreau and her family that protested most audibly and requested that the painting be removed from the exhibition. Surprisingly, Sargent refused, and after the close of the exhibit, displayed the portrait prominently in his Paris studio. At the age of 28, Sargent had achieved both the notice and the scorn of Parisian high society. Unfortunately, the scandal hurt his chances of obtaining future portrait commissions in France.

Shortly after the controversy, Sargent relocated his studio to London, where he found fame and fortune painting portraits of the British aristocracy, such as Dr Pozzi at Home, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, The Wyndham Sisters, and Mrs. Carl Meyer and her Children, to name a few. As for Madame Gautreau, whose name has more or less fallen into obscurity, it is said that the resulting humiliation caused her to retire from social life.

To see a gallery of the works of John Singer Sargentís work, including a large image of Madame X, click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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