4/13/2008

Portait of the week - Madame X (Virginie Amélie Gautreau)


Madame X, painted by John Sargent, exhibited in Paris at the salon in 1884.

This portrait of the Parisian beauty caused an uproar at the art exhibition of 1884, and to us this portrait looks strikingly modern.
The portrait was originally named Portrait de Mme ***, but it was changed after the salon by the artist himself. That is not to say that the portrait was anonymous from the start, it was well known who the sitter for this portrait was, Madame Pierre Gautreau, who was a well-known face in the finer circles of Paris in the 1880's.

Sargent had met the lady in question at the beginning of the 80's and was determined to paint a portrait of this famous beauty - originally from New Orleans, Louisiana (born there in 1859) but she had moved to Paris twenty years prior to meeting the artist, with her mother after the death of her father in the American Civil War.

She might be a beauty, but she was not easy to paint and to quote a letter to his friend Vernon Lee in 1883: In a few days I shall be back in Paris, tackling my other 'envoi,' the Portrait of a Great Beauty. Do you object to people who are 'fardeés' to the extent of being uniform lavender or blotting-paper colour all over? If so you would not care for my sitter; but she has the most beautiful lines, and if the lavender or chlorate of potash-lozenge colour be pretty in itself I should be more than pleased. Followed by: 'Your letter has just reached me still in this country house struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gaureau.'

And when the painting was finished it did not bestow much happiness on the painter either. The Parisians did not like it at all. It showed off far too much bare skin, it was far too suggestive, far too alluring. To us now it might not look as daring, our modern eyes are more used to naked skin. But it has also to do with the alteration Sargent did of the painting - after the exhibition. Originally one of the shoulder straps had slided down from the shoulder and down on the arm, giving the illusion of the dress almost being close to falling off. That was not approved of.

Madam Gautreau was reported to not approve of the painting, nor did her family, and it was taken away after the exhibition by the artist himself - and was tucked away in his studio for many years.

Obviously Mme Gautreau got over it since she in 1891 sat for another portrait by another artist that clearly tried to evoke the pose of the lady and her dress, like this, but the result was hardly as memorable. And the times were changing too. It came a time when people started to view the painting as somewhat less revolting. And now it is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York - and can been seen as one of Sargent's finest works, very classical and beautiful and still very modern.

Madame Gautreau died in 1915.

2 comments:

Joanna said...

I fell in love Madame Gautreau on a trip to New York in 1992. I was away from my family for a month and spent much of my weekends wandering through the city's art museums.

I was wandering about when I came around a corner and there she was - this stunning beauty in a portrait that could have been painted the week before. I have never seen a reproduction that came anywhere near the grandeur of the original. The actual portrait is nearly life size and her skin has a pale almost translucent quality.

I found a biography of Amelie recently. She was quite notable and notorious in the Paris of the 1880a. If you're interested, the title is Strapless by Deborah Davis.

nicki lover said...

she was a beautiful woman