In honor of New York fashion week, I have decided to introduce you to one of the most fashionable ladies in art. May I introduce Madame X, or Madame Pierre Gautreau if you prefer. This stunning lady was painted in 1884 by none other then John Singer Sargent. But who is this beautiful lady? Her name is Virginie Amélie Avegono Gautreau, who was born in 1859 in New Orleans Louisiana but married a Parisian banker and shipping mogul Pierre Gastreau(1) and instantly became the “it” girl of Parisian socialites. The interesting thing about this portrait is the fact that this was not a commissioned portrait by the madame, but rather by Sargent. And Sargent made a fantastic choice, as this portrait is absolutely stunning. Sargent wanted a beautiful subject and asked Madame Gautreau to sit for him, and she agreed. The portrait was to show off what Sargent could really do with portraiture for the 1884 Salon in Paris. Madame Gautreau was not shy about being daring in fashion, and Sargent does a fantastic job emphasizing that. And as a pale individual who wears black all the time, I can say she rocks it better then I ever could.
Hold on — Why is the painting in black and white?! Well the original painting was kept in Sargent’s collection for about 30 years after it was taken from the 1884 salon, and all we have of it is a photograph. Now wait a minute! Black was NOT a popular color to wear in 1884, let alone outside a funeral, right?! You are correct. But this daring fashionista pushed the boundaries of Parisian fashion, and it didn’t stop in her portrait. Here we see Sargent elegantly place her in a hourglass enhancing black gown with quite a lot of chest space missing on the top. The right strap delicately and seductively looks as if it will fall off, revealing something scandalous. The black is a stunning contrast to her ghostly pale skin and auburn brown hair as she leans on the table looking away but blatantly acknowledging our presence.
Well this stunning portrait got rave reviews a the Salon, right? Right?! WRONG! This portrait was quite the scandal. First off, it basically ruined the reputation of Madame Gautreau by having people call her promiscuous and siren-like after seeing her pose for quite the scandalous portrait. One of the biggest complaints was how the right shoulder strap was falling in a very suggestive manner. Sargent later corrected this when he sold the painting (redone with a fixed strap seen here next to a photograph of the original painting) to the Metropolitan Museum(2).
Ok, so the painting ruined the life of the sitter but elevated the painter, so why should I care about it today? Well to answer that, we look at the painting in modern media. It has become an icon of fashion so far as being featured in Vogue in 1999, where Nicole Kidman recreated the painting for the magazine (See here). It also has become Sargent’s most famous work and has become the poster image for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It has been studied by scholars once over for decades and has represented beauty and boldness since the beginning.
So, think what you like about Madame X, but she is not going away and she will forever be Sargent’s “It” girl.
-The Art Historian