14/09/2010

THE NOTORIOUS MADAME X...


When John Singer Sargent was living in France he exhibited a portrait at the Parisian Salon of 1884, believing that it would make his name as the darling of the art world.  
The painting was of Virginie Gautreau, a well-known American society beauty married to a wealthy French banker, of whom 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 artist was invited to Virginie’s home, a grand estate in Brittany where many preparatory sketches were made. For the final portrait, Sargent worked on a very large canvas – almost seven feet (2 meters) tall - hoping that way to ensure the greatest exposure and attention for his work. 
The result was not what he had hoped. The work was derided as scandalous, with the greatest attention being paid to the fact that, in the original painting, one of the straps of Virginie’s gown was shown as having fallen down which - by the standards of the time - suggested an air of decadence and sexual availability.
Virginie was delighted. She considered the work a masterpiece, but her mother demanded it never be shown, and with Salon members so outraged Sargent eventually had to give in and repaint the strap so that it appeared to be secured on the model's shoulder. 

However, the damage was already done, and if he and his model had hoped for acclaim the ensuing reviews did not agree. Madame Gautreau's reputation was lost, and even though Sargent withdrew the work and subsequently renamed it as Madame X his reputation was also damned. He was forced to leave Paris in ignominy and set up a new studio in London – where luckily he soon achieved the success of which he had dreamed in France. But he never lost faith in that portrait, and once wrote, “I suppose it is the best thing that I have ever done.” 
Since its initial outing the work was often displayed in various art exhibitions, before eventually being sold it to the American Metropolitan Museum of Art for the sum of $1000. 

The VV wonders what is worth today.

Another full-sized sketch remains on display in London's Tate Britain, and here one strap on Virginie’s gown is still salaciously removed.

6 comments:

  1. Love that story. Singer is astonishing!

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  2. Thank you, Cynthia - I think his work is stunning, though some critics now deride his figurative work as being cliched.

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  3. Gorgeous. I adore his figurative work. and please allow me to be very mature and say phooey on the critics.

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  4. I love Sargent's works, and am particularly interested in how this Victorian influenced Edwardian art. But here is the interesting bit. I have used Madame X as one of my models for teaching, but had no idea that it was so unfavourably reviewed in Paris. What a strange world, the art world was.

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  5. Thank you, Kate and Hels.

    It is a curious thing, Hels - especially as Manet had already exhibited a nude.

    But, I read an interesting article once suggesting that sexuality was accepted if a model was poor or a prostitute, but to flagrantly expose such licentiousness in one of the wealthier classes was simply taking things too far!

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  6. It's a remarkable portrait - I'm glad that the subject was pleased with the result (and so she should be).

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