8 Chapter 7 – John Singer Sargent

The Impact of Madame X (Virginie Amelie Gautreau)

Lailey Newton

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Sepia photograph, interior, many curtains and draperies over doors and windows. A man in a suit with a small beard and mustache stands in front of a large painting of a woman (the infamous Madame X portrait), while working on a smaller canvas to the side of it
John Singer Sargent in his Paris studio circa 1885

As an outsider, an American born artist living within France, the critics and viewers of the Salon were always going to treat John Singer Sargent’s works a little differently than his native peers.[1] With the pressure of being an outsider, Sargent would have wanted to really make an impact in order to kickstart his professional practice. However, one of his early works, The Portrait of Madame X (Virginie Amelie Gautreau), shown at the Paris Salon of 1884 created quite a stir which nearly ended his career; prompting his movement to England where he later became the most prominent portrait painter for his time.[2] The Salon during the late 19th century was known for rejecting modern artists and restricting the works shown to ‘Salon Genres’: history, landscape, and portraiture.[3] While Sergeant’s work is by all means a portrait, it completely subverts the Salon’s norms in the way it presents its subject matter of a sexual woman with esteem and fearlessness.[4] There was no othering or sexualization, rather just showing Virginie Amelie Gautreau as she really was. For this, John Singer Sargent revolutionized female portraiture by rejecting the Paris Salon’s ideals of historical and modest values, instead embracing modernity, French high fashion, and gave Madame X the respect she deserves while still displaying her as a sexually liberated individual.

 

A black and white photograph of a woman in 3/4 view, resting her hands on the back of a chair.
Photograph of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, circa 1878

Madame X, actually named Virginie Amelie Gautreau (often referred as Madame Pierre Gautreau) was a professional beauty, and was known by many in the higher class social circles of France for her bold unconventional beauty.[5] Dorothy Moss writes:

“She carefully constructed her image and was known for pushing boundaries of the aristocratic social code to the limits. A woman with a theatrical flair, she used excessive rice powder makeup on her delicate blueish skin to dramatize her appearance, amplifying her painted eyebrows, henna-coloured hair, and deep red lips.”[6]

Her status and appearance made her the perfect person for Sargent to approach as a model in an attempt to get his career off the ground.[7]

A very white skinned woman, in a plunging necklined, sleeveless black dress, sits with papers on her lap, looking towards the right side of the viewing plan, while stretching her left arm to rest her hand on the armrest of the blue chair she rests on.
John Singer Sargent, Figure study of Mme Gautreau, c 1884, watercolour and graphite

Someone as bold as her would surely make his portrait stand out among the many others displayed at the Paris Salon. Working tirelessly Sargent placed Gautreau in a great multitude of poses, took many photographs, did preparatory sketches, watercolour studies and oil studies; all in order to best as possible capture her likeness in his final work.[8] However to Sargent’s frustration he found that Gautreau was incredibly difficult to capture due to her ever changing skin tone and complexion. Every day the application of her lavender rice make-up powdered skin and dyed eyebrows would change ever so slightly but still enough for Sargent to notice.[9] It took nearly one full year to complete his painting of Virginie Amelie Gautreau. Gautreau found the work stunning, fully believing that Sargent had created the next greatest masterpiece to be shown at the Paris Salon.[10]

An unfinished painting of a woman leaning on a table in a black dress, her profile sharp against a blotchy brown background.
John Singer Sargent, Study of Mme Gautreau, c. 1884, oil on canvas

Standing at 7.7 ft (2.35 m) the Portrait of Madame X is eye-catching and difficult to miss.[11] The contrast of her almost white pale violet powdered skin in her deep black satin and silk dress demands your full attention. The dress and accessories she is wearing are that of modern French high fashion.[12] She stands open towards the viewer, with her shoulders erect and spread wide. Her “left hip [is] provocatively tilted” as she addresses the audience with an air of self-confidence.[13] Leaning her right hand on a delicate claw foot table that mirrors her curved figure she seems to be pushing her frontal stance forwards even more so.[14] Her face however is in profile, revealing her sharp angular chin and nose, making her beauty bold yet mysterious. The strap on her right was unfixed to her shoulder and fell downwards, something Sargent would later cover up in an attempt to make the artwork more tame for his audience.[15]

A woman with luminous white skin stands beside a wooden table, left arm in a twisted, sensuous position as her hand rests on the table. Her right hand gathers the skirt of of her long black dress, the plunging neckline and gold shoulder straps contrasting sharply with her white skin. She looks to her right (the viewer's left) giving the viewer a profile view of her pointed nose, pink ear, and upswept dark hair. She stands against a plain brown background.
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Madame X, 1882-1884, oil on canvas

The reaction from the public at the Paris Salon of 1884 must have come as a shock to both John Singer Sargent and Virginie Amelie Gautreau as the portrait received heavy criticism due to its “provocatively erotic” nature.[16] This reaction in part comes as no surprise to those other than Sargent and Gautreau as the Portrait of Madame X was just breaking too many of the unspoken rules of the Paris Salon at the time. This is a French society woman painted ‘provocatively’, there is no othering or Orientalism to ease the guilty conscience of those lusting after her expression of sexuality.[17] On that note, she was deliberately expressing herself through her sexuality and beauty, which was unacceptable in the first place. As well as this she is painted in high fashion, in a tight fitting and bust revealing satin dress during a period that still heavily valued traditionalism and modesty in their art.[18] This portrait was too ahead of its time. Sargent found this criticism disheartening stating: “I suppose it is the best thing I have done”.[19] Even with his attempts to repaint the strap back onto Gautreau’s shoulder he still faced backlash. He decided instead to store the painting in his personal study until it would eventually be sold to the Metropolitan Museum; his only request was that Virginie Amelie Gautreau’s identity be protected, thus renaming the work the Portrait of Madame X.[20]

A woman in a white dress, with one strap falling off her shoulder, stands with startlingly white skin against a black background. She faces the light come in from the left side of the picture plane and is viewed in profile.
Gustave Courtois, Madame Gautreau, 1891

All of this ridicule however was not in vain, as John Singer Sargent’s work created a ripple effect that began to revolutionize the depiction of sexually liberated women in portraiture with time. As soon as seven years later Virginie Amelie Gautreau was painted in a similar style of dress by Gustave Courtois displaying far more skin than Sargent’s counterpart.[21] The strap of Gautreau’s shoulder even hangs much lower than the Portrait of Madame X’s originally did. However, surprisingly the portrait by Courtois was received well by the public.[22] Virginie Amelie Gautreau was even painted by Antonio de La Gándara and displayed her upper back uncovered which was very risqué.[23] Slowly the images of women at the Paris Salon, but also the greater art world, began allowing the depiction of women as respected peoples, rather than objects to be hidden modestly away.

A woman in a champagne coloured dress stands with her back to the viewer, her face in profile, as she examines a large feather fan
Antonio de La Gándara, Madame Pierre Gautreau, 1898, oil on canvas

Bibliography

Chilvers, Ian. Art, The Visual Definitive Guide: 19th Century, End of the Century, John Singer Sargent. New York: DK Publishing, 2018.

Davies Penelope J. E. Walter B. Denny, et al. Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition: The Age of Positivism: Realism, Impressionism, and the Pre-Raphaelites, 1848—1885, Realism in France. 1, 8th ed. Saddle River, NJ Pearson Education, 2010. 393.

Johnsingersargent.org. “Sargent, The Complete Works”. Accessed September 16, 2021. https://www.johnsingersargent.org/

Jones, Jonathan. “Madame XXX.” The Guardian. The Guardian. February 1, 2006. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2006/feb/01/3.

Metropolitan Museum. “John Singer Sargent | Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) | American | the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” 2020. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/12127.

Moss, Dorothy. “John Singer Sargent, ‘Madame X’ and ‘Baby Millbank.’” The Burlington Magazine 143, no. 1178 (2001): 268–275. http://www.jstor.org/stable/889125.

Mount, Charles Merrill. “The Works of John Singer Sargent in Washington.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 49 (1973): 443–492. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40067752.

Sidlauskas, Susan. “Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame X.’” American Art 15, no. 3 (2001): 9–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3109402.

USEUM.org “Madame Gautreau – Antonio de La Gandara.” USEUM. 2011. https://useum.org/artwork/Madame-Pierre-Gautreau-Antonio-de-La-Gandara.

USEUM.org “Madame Gautreau – Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois.” USEUM. 2021. https://useum.org/artwork/Madame-Gautreau-Gustave-Claude-Etienne-Courtois-1891.

Weinberg, H. Barbara. “John Singer Sargent (1856–1925).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2004. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sarg/hd_sarg.htm


 


  1. Ian Chilvers, Art, The Visual Definitive Guide: 19th Century, End of the Century, John Singer Sargent. New York: DK Publishing, 2018. 393.
  2. H. Barbara Weinberg, “John Singer Sargent (1856–1925).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2004.http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sarg/hd_sarg.htm
  3. Jonathan Jones, “Madame XXX.” The Guardian. The Guardian. February 1, 2006. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2006/feb/01/3.
  4. Jonathan Jones, “Madame XXX,” The Guardian.
  5. Metropolitan Museum, “John Singer Sargent | Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) | American | the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” 2020. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/12127.
  6. Dorothy Moss, “John Singer Sargent, ‘Madame X’ and ‘Baby Millbank.’” The Burlington Magazine 143, no. 1178 (2001): 270. http://www.jstor.org/stable/889125.
  7. Metropolitan Museum. “John Singer Sargent | Madame X”. 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/12127.
  8. Dorothy Moss, “John Singer Sargent, ‘Madame X’. 271.
  9. Dorothy Moss, “John Singer Sargent, ‘Madame X’. 271.
  10. Jonathan Jones, “Madame XXX.” 2006.
  11. Metropolitan Museum, “John Singer Sargent | Madame X”.
  12. Jonathan Jones, “Madame XXX.” 2006.
  13. Susan Sidlauskas, “Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame X.’” American Art 15, no. 3 (2001): 10. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3109402.
  14. Susan Sidlauskas, “Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame X.” 10.
  15. Metropolitan Museum, “John Singer Sargent | Madame X”.
  16. H. Barbara Weinberg, “John Singer Sargent (1856–1925).”
  17. Jonathan Jones, “Madame XXX.” 2006.
  18. Jonathan Jones, “Madame XXX.” 2006.
  19. Metropolitan Museum, “John Singer Sargent | Madame X.”
  20. Metropolitan Museum, “John Singer Sargent | Madame X.”
  21. USEUM.org, “Madame Gautreau - Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois.” USEUM. 2021. https://useum.org/artwork/Madame-Gautreau-Gustave-Claude-Etienne-Courtois-1891.
  22. USEUM.org, “Madame Gautreau - Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois.”
  23. USEUM.org, “Madame Gautreau - Antonio de La Gandara.” USEUM. 2011. https://useum.org/artwork/Madame-Pierre-Gautreau-Antonio-de-La-Gandara.

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