madame x : plantation to paris

The French were considered to have less scruples relating to eroticism than the English. Manet’s Olympia broke the mold, but, in an exhibition where paintings of nudes were common, that of Madame Gautreau in black evening dress was considered more than erotic, or erotic in a sense not previously perceived as acceptable. There was something new and unsettling, vague winds of Arthur Rimbaud and a procrastinated redemption through sin; a dynamic of celebrity, adolescence, decadence and willfully wasteful consumption paired against finite moments of anxiety and vulnerability. …

McCullough: But what was unacceptable to “tout Paris” was the blatant, self-centered impropriety of it all—the heavy powder, the odd, arrogant pose, the décolletage. Such vulgar flaunting was simply not done by women of social standing. “All the A.M. it was one series of bons mots, mauvaises plaisanteries and fierce discussions,” Curtis continued in his letter. “John, poor boy, was navré [full of sorrow]. The tumult of talk lasted through the day, but by evening the tone of opinion about the picture had changed. It was discovered to be the knowing thing to say ‘étrangement épatant.’ [shocking, amazing!]”…

---Sargent was by nature, as Vernon Lee wrote, always “especially attracted by the bizarre and outlandish,” the very essence of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who, contrary to the impression most people had, was an American.--- Read More:

…“I went home with him,” Curtis continued, “and remained there while he went to see the Boits.” Madame Gautreau and her mother came to the studio “bathed in tears.” Curtis “stayed them off,” but Madame Avegno came back again, after Sargent had returned, and made “a fearful scene.” “All Paris mocks my daughter,” she said. If the painting were to stay on exhibit, she would “die of chagrin.”

Sargent, obviously put out, told her there was nothing he could do, that it was against the rules of the Salon to retire a picture and that he had painted Amélie exactly as she was dressed. “Defending his cause made Sargent feel much better,” wrote Curtis. “Still we talked it over until 1 o’clock here last night and I fear he has never had such a blow.” …

Sargent’s Madame X also recalls Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History in Gautreau’s pose. There is something disruptive in the linear narrative of time that is perplexing; the pose with its back to the future and its face towards the past. Something of the forgotten messianic moment appearing in the least expected places.

…The reviews were essentially of three kinds, those that objected to Madame Gautreau’s décolletage, those repulsed by the color of her skin, and those that, seeing “modernity” in the approach, applauded Sargent’s courage. The New York Times dismissed the painting out of hand as a “caricature,” far below Sargent’s usual standard. “The pose of the figure is absurd, and the bluish coloring atrocious.” The Times of London conceded only that the portrait was “most interesting.” But the French critic Louis de Fourcaud, writing in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, called it a masterpiece of characterization. It should be kept in mind, he wrote, that “in a person of this type everything relates to the cult of self and the increasing concern to captivate those around her.

Her sole purpose in life is to demonstrate by her skills in contriving incredible outfits which shape her and exhibit her and which she can carry off with bravado. . . .Read More:

So, the painting is also a study of opposites. What is revealed is equally hidden. What is pretentious is also fragile. What goes forward also retreats. Affirmation and defamation playing on the intensity of opposites that finds the locus of its tension between flesh and thought, complicity and resistance and both the fantasy and erasure of the female subject. There is also a gendering of melancholia here within the rhetoric of rebellion and a crisis of wealth.

…Sargent had something of the social manner of a Harley Street physician; he was handsome, bearded, well-set up, correctly conservative in dress, and robust; his deep voice, his formality without affectation, inspired confidence. Like Whistler he admired Velasquez and his painting showed that he had also looked at Zurbaran and Goya. He frankly confessed his indebtedness to the Spanish school and his liking of it….

---It is the portrait of Virginie Gautreau, a Parisian beauty born in America. Sargent showed this portrait in 1884 in the famous Salon: the resulting scandal ended Sargent’s career as a portrait painter in France… but started him down the same path in the United Kingdom and the

ted States. The painting is at least 6 ft. tall, creating an imposing canvas even before one considers the contrast of dark and light, the seductive boldness of the subject, and the daring choice to pose her in profile, with one strap dangling… which was one early version, repainted by Sargent later.--- Read More:

…To his sturdy knowledge of the Spanish masters, and his application of what he had learned from them, he added lively touches of style that he had picked up from Manet and Degas. Sargent had the art of pleasing those who sat to him, and as Sir Osbert Sitwell has remarked, “They loved him, I think, because, with all his merits, he showed them to be rich: looking at his portraits, they understood at last how rich they really were.” Read More:

---After Major Avegno died of wounds suffered at the Battle of Shiloh, Mrs. Avegno took her daughters to Paris. There Virginie became a celebrated beauty and married Pierre Gautreau, a Parisian banker. Sargent probably met her in 1881. In 1882, he wrote of wanting to paint her portrait. He worked on the portrait at the Gautreau's summer home in Brittany in 1883, but he had difficulty finding a suitable pose and perspective. Numerous studies show his different attempts at the composition. The portrait as finally executed was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884 as "Portrait de Mme ***" and created a scandal. Sargent considered it one of his best works; an unfinished second version of the same pose is in the Tate Gallery in London.---Read More:

…Whistler and Sargent enjoyed one another’s company. Mrs. “Jack” Gardiner cleverly divided her enthusiasm for the two painters between them but it was Sargent who painted the memorable, spectacular, and not flattering portrait of her in a very low-cut black evening gown. The lady was an exhibitionist and a candid one; she was far too arrogant and intelligent to deny the fact. When she came to Paris Whistler advised Rothenstein to guide her about the city, which he did, and he also brought her on a visit to Whistler’s studio. Rothenstein wrote of the incident in his memoirs:

Whistler was in his most genial mood, and showed a number of his canvases, among which was a lovely sea piece with sailing ships. Mrs. Gardiner nudged me; I could see she was eager to have it. “Why don’t you put it under your arm and carry it off?” I whispered. She was always
ready for any unusual adventure, and she boldly told Whistler that she was going to take the picture with her. Whistler laughed and did nothing to stop her….

alan chong:Mrs. Gardner sat for Sargent during his visit to Boston in January 1888. He was paid $3000 for the portrait, which was exhibited to great acclaim at Boston’s St. Botolph Club. The work also inspired gossip and legend: someone jokingly titled it “Woman: An Enigma,” while others believed that the sensuous display of flesh deliberately echoed the scandal recently created by Sargent’s Madame X. Mrs. Gardner herself said that she rejected eight renderings of the face until she was satisfied. Jack Gardner seems to have asked his wife not to publicly show the portrait again while he was alive, and indeed the portrait was placed in the Gothic Room, which remained private until Mrs. Gardner’s death. Read More:

…Later Rothenstein learned that Whistler had given her the picture for three hundred pounds. Read More:


…There were times when the effects that Sargent produced were obviously meretricious, but he was a good craftsman; his eye was clear, his hand was steady, he was almost never dull and frequently brilliant. All his qualities were of a kind that led to his success as a portrait painter: he charged high prices for his portraits (three thousand guineas was a rate he favored and his clients felt that his prices were a compliment to their wealth); he was an excellent guest at dinner; he seldom spoke ill of anyone and his good-humored dignity made it difficult for others to speak ill of him; his appeal was to the younger set of American and British millionaires those who regarded Watts and Millais fosse as painters, who, after all, belonged to an elder generation.

If anything, John Singer Sargent, born 1856, in Florence, Italy, of American parents, was far more of a European painter than Whistler. It was not until he was twenty-one, a student in Paris at the Atelier Carolus-Duran where instruction followed the Spanish school of portrait painting, that he paid his first, a four-month, visit to the United States. The trip was a courtesy visit to American relatives, and he was accompanied by his mother and his sister. It is believed, and not without foundation since Henry James was one of the very few friends of Sargent who had gained his confidence that James’s famous short story, ‘The Pupil,” had one point of origin in Sargent’s recollections of his childhood. Sargent’s family, drifting about in Europe on a small income, were as hard-pressed for funds as the Moreen family in James’s story, and little Morgan Moreen, “the pupil/’ in his sensitivity and erratic brilliance, does resemble the often inarticulate, yet gifted and precocious young John Singer
Sargent. Read More:
Madame Gautreau was one of Paris’s notorious beauties. She wore lavender powder and prided herself exceedingly on her appearance. In The Metropolitan Museum of Art Favorite Paintings, I was affected to read this commentary on her by A. Hyatt Mayer:

Her studied, indifferent, statuesque presence stopped parties, stopped traffic in the street….But one day on the beach at Cannes, Madame Gautreau overheard a woman say that she was beginning to look worn. She drove in a closed carriage to her hotel, took a darkened compartment on the train to Paris, and shut herself up for the rest of her life in dim rooms without mirrors.Read More:

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