When John Singer Sargent was living in France he painted the socialite beauty, Virginie Gautreau. And, when he showed that portrait at the Salon of 1884 he had high hopes of being hailed as the darling of the Parisian artworld.
Virginie was an American who had married a wealthy French banker, and Sargent wrote to a friend at the time – “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. If you are ‘bien avec elle’ and will see her in Paris, you might tell her I am a man of prodigious talent.”
In the June of 1883, the prodigiously talented young man was invited to Virginie’s estate in Brittany where many preparatory sketches were made. For the final portrait, as with that of Ena and Betty Wertheimer, Sargent worked on a very large canvas – almost seven feet (2 meters) tall - hoping that way to ensure the greatest attention.
The result was derision and scandal, and what drew the greatest attention by far was the fact that, in the original painting, one strap of Virginie’s gown was shown as having fallen away, suggesting an air of decadence and sexual availability.
The model thought the work a masterpiece, but her mother demanded it never be shown, and with Salon members so outraged Sargent repainted his model’s gown with the strap being firmly secured on her shoulder. But, the damage was already done, and if he and his model had hoped for acclaim the ensuing reviews were most disappointing. Madame Gautreau's reputation was lost, and even though Sargent withdrew the work and subsequently renamed it as Madame X, such was the affect upon his career he was forced to leave Paris in ignominy to set up a new studio in London – where he soon achieved enormous success.
But, Sargent never lost faith in that portrait of Virginie, once writing that, “I suppose it is the best thing that I have ever done.” He displayed it in various exhibitions and eventually sold it to the American Metropolitan Museum of Art for the sum of $1000.
Another full-sized sketch remains on display in London's Tate Britain - where one of the straps on Virginie’s gown is still salaciously removed.