Behind the Art: ‘Madame X’ by John Singer Sargent – The ‘scandalous’ painting that shook Paris in 1884

In 2022, it is hard to see why John Singer Sargent’s 1883–84 painting ‘Portrait of Madame X’ scandalised Paris. This painting of a young socialite called Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, wife of the French banker Pierre Gautreau is now worth at least $106,000.00. Sargent shows Virginie posing in a black satin dress with jewelled straps, a dress that reveals and hides at the same time. It caused such a stir that Sargent was forced to leave Paris for London, thereafter his permanent home base. This painting once referred to as a ‘tacky’ piece of art now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American wing, in Manhattan, United States of America. Why did the public hate the artwork and the painter for it?

Why was it painted and who is the young socialite?

As any other young artist, Sargent wanted to develop his skills, especially in portrait painting. Portraits however in that era were usually commissioned. There were exceptions to that rule such as Vincent van Gogh who painted his own face to practice the method. Another exception was Sargent who chased the American socialite so that he could study the techniques. But why her? Who is this notorious woman the artist chased? The model was an American expatriate who married a French banker and became infamous in Parisian high society for her beauty and rumoured infidelities. She wore lavender powder and prided herself on her appearance. People used to call her a “professional beauty” (English term for a woman who uses personal skills to advance herself socially). Her unconventional beauty made her an object of fascination for artists and several of them used to ‘stalk’ her so that they could paint her once. Sargent simply wanted to learn and also improve his status as a talented artist. Gautreau eventually accepted Sargent’s offer in February 1883 as she possibly wanted to attain an even higher status in French society. Little did the artist and the model know their collaboration would ruin their reputation within seconds.

The frustrated artist and the busy socialite

This painting of a young socialite called Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, wife of the French banker Pierre Gautreau is now worth at least 6,000.00. (Photo:

Before their reputations were completely ruined, the artist had to go through a painful process of painting the lady. Little progress was made during the winter of 1883, as Gautreau was distracted by social engagements, and was not by nature inclined to the discipline of sitting for a portrait. Sargent even travelled to her estate in Brittany in June, where he commenced a series of preparatory works in pencil, watercolours, and oils and about thirty drawings resulted from these sessions. Gautreau got bored again by the process of sitting for a portrait and instead preferred to attend parties. Sargent complained of “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau” to his friends and family. After several poses and painful sitting sessions, the artist finally decided on the pose and the composition of the painting where Gautreau is seen standing facing away from the viewer and her pale skin shining through the canvas. While the work was in progress, Gautreau was enthusiastic; she believed that Sargent was painting a masterpiece. She never thought in her wildest dreams that this ‘masterpiece’ would soon be labelled as a ‘tacky’ piece of art.

The ‘scandalous’ painting that shook Paris

After months of hard work Sargent managed to finish his painting in time for the 1884 Paris Salon and titled the painting “Portrait of Mme***” The reception was something both Gautreau and Sargent were not expecting. The painting showed one strap of Gautreau’s dress hanging loosely and viewers understood the subject’s bare shoulder, with its dangling strap and exposed cleavage, as a nod toward Gautreau’s loose sexual morals. Sargent had to later paint on the strap to make it look like it’s fastly secured onto the shoulder. Also, the identity of the model could not be maintained as a mystery because almost all of Paris knew who Gautreau was and what her reputation was like- an adulteress. There were rumoured liaisons with French statesman Léon Gambetta and diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps. Few contemporary writers justify her adultress behaviour by saying her husband was “small, singularly ugly and twice the age of Amélie Avegno.”

It was not just the dress that was so scandalous, it was also her ghostly skin tone that recoiled viewers. Like other fashionable women of her day, Gautreau may have been ingesting arsenic to lighten her skin. However, critics thought she looked anything but natural in the painting and looked like a ‘ghost’. To add fuel to the fire, her mother was furious about the painting. According to a Tribune article, she lamented to Sargent, “All Paris is making fun of my daughter… She is ruined. My people will be forced to defend themselves. She’ll die of chagrin.” This made a perfect plot for more melodrama and Gautreau never recovered from this incident. She retreated from Parisian society for the rest of her life. A letter of hers read “I will try to get over the sadness which for several days has overwhelmed me and which makes me depressed enough to die.” The artist on the other hand was so humiliated that he left Paris and moved to London permanently.

The aftermath of the scandal

Sargent hung ‘Portrait of Madame X’’ in his studio in London and swore never to make such a mistake again. He, however, displayed it in several international exhibitions starting in 1905. In 1916, Sargent sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By then, the painting had become more famous for the uproar it generated than for any artistic merit. Several critics did not see anything special about the work.  The painting, however, inspired modern fashion. They say a good black dress is timeless and in 1960, Cuban-American fashion designer Luis Estévez created an iconic black dress based on Portrait of Madame X. Dina Merrill modelled the Estévez dress for photographer Milton H. Greene published in Life magazine on 11 January 1960. This painting, just like any other art piece, has left its legacy – be it more for the fashion industry than artistic schools.

Next up in Behind the Art: Why are Vincent van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers so famous? What is the untold story behind the painting and what did sunflowers mean to Van Gogh?

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