John Singer Sargent’s masterpiece, Madame X, while initially a source of pain and frustration to the artist, proved to be his most recognizable and memorable work. The portrait’s subject, Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, was a Paris socialite renown for her beauty and though it is a remarkably beautiful work to contemporary audiences, at the time of its Paris salon debut, the portrait was greatly criticized by critics, the public and Gautreau’s family ( her mother was outraged ).
The characteristics that appeal to our modern eyes are some of the same characteristics by which it was condemned upon its debut. The elegant lines of her simple black dress create a decidedly contemporary feel to Madame Gautreau’s ensemble, but this would be years before Coco Chanel’s “little black dress” would become ubiquitous with timeless fashion. The expanse of almost translucent white skin may not seem provocative to our 21st century eyes, to show such a sweep of bare skin, especially the beautifully turned neck and decolletage would have been quite provocative in 1884. Though artists had long been painting nudes of mythical and fictional figures, showcasing the body of a real person in such a seductive way would have been scandalous. ( Even if said person was infamous for her infidelities.. ).
The most scandalous component of all though may be her dress strap. The strap as pictured above laying rightfully upon her shoulder is not how Sargent originally painted it. In looking at his sketches for the portrait, it would seem that her strap had a tendency to slip off her shoulder..
So, painting the truth in beauty, Sargent originally depicted the strap as having fallen casually from Gautreau’s shoulder.
This detail caused such a backlash, that when Sargent picked the painting up after the Salon showing, he took it back to the studio and repainted the strap well stationed upon her shoulder. Despite the outrage the painting incited when it was first shown, Sargent would eventually come to realize the importance of the portrait, describing it in a letter to the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as “..the best thing I have ever done”. He would sell it to the museum in 1916 and it is there that I saw it in person in 2007 during the “Americans in Paris” exhibition. Photographs online do not do this painting justice in any way. In person, it is commanding in scale, mesmerizing in presence and breathtaking in beauty.