Arts Everyday Living: Sargent’s Masterpiece Notorious—The Case of Madame X

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 There was a grand disturbance before the portrait all day.  In a few minutes I found John dodging behind doors to avoid friends who looked grave.  By the corridors he took me to see it.  I was disappointed in the colour.  She looks decomposed.  All the women jeer…..

Ralph Curtis, friend of John Singer Sargent


Can one painting almost ruin an artist’s career?

The answer is yes, in the case of American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). For Madame X, which he had envisioned as his creative triumph, nearly caused his downfall.

Why was this portrait of the wife of a French banker,* now displayed prominently at the Metropolitan Museum, so controversial 130 years ago?  Perhaps you’ll find some answers in the virtual exhibition, Masterpiece Notorious: The Case of Madame X.  

(*Note: her name was never officially stated at the painting’s premiere.  Sargent is said to have suggested the present title in 1916.)



John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1884, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York



In 1883, when he begins Madame X, 27 year old Sargent is a rising star in the Parisian cultural firmament.  Although descended from New Englanders, he had been born in Florence in 1856, where his expatriate parents, Dr. Fitzwilliam and Mary Sargent were spending the winter. Grows up in Europe, stays with his family in a variety of cities, developing a cosmopolitan background with knowledge of at least 4 languages.  His exceptional artistic ability, obvious as a child, encouraged especially by his mother.

By age of 20, attends both Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the studio school of prominent painter Carolus Duran who influences the extraordinary brushwork which would become Sargent’s trademark—already evident in his tribute to his teacher just below. According to another student, American artist Julien Alden Weir, young John is one of the most talented fellows I have ever come across.


John Singer Sargent, Carolus-Duran, 1879, oil on canvas, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts


Sargent’s greatest accomplishment is the regular acceptance of his woks by the Paris Salon starting in 1877, which represents the pinnacle of fame for the ambitious artist.  His blockbuster El Jaleo and innovative The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit attract both praise as well as criticism. Who will be the subject of his next entry?  Sargent seeks stunner Madame Pierre Gautreau, a society beauty, who is becoming an obsession. He writes to one of her relatives, asking to help obtain her permission to pose.

I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think that she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty….you might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent.

She accepts and Virginie Avegno Gautreau (1859-1915) takes her first step into art history. Originally from New Orleans, she, like Sargent, was mainly raised in Europe (see end of blog for details).  Madame Gautreau, just 24, apparently has used both her social standing as the spouse of a wealthy businessman and her striking looks to attain celebrity status among the privileged ranks of her peers.

In what might be an early oil sketch of Gautreau by Sargent, does she seem to be almost toasting herself in a gesture of personal admiration?



John Singer Sargent, Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast, c. 1883, oil on panel, Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, Boston, Massachusetts



However, Sargent soon becomes frustrated with what he describes as his new muse’s unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness in a 1883 letter to confidante Vernon Lee, penned from the Gautreau summer estate in Brittany. During his sojourn there, Sargent attempts  to overcome the challenge of getting Virginie to successfully model for him.  He does produce a series of pencil drawings, done during this period and later in the first part of 1884, revealing the evolution of his master work.  For example, from the sharply defined profile which is the essence of Madame X,


John Singer Sargent, Study for Madame Pierre Gautreau, c. 1884, pencil, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York


to a more relaxed back view.


John Singer Sargent, Study for Madame X, c. 1883, pencil, Private Collection


Or in another perspective, Sargent freely outlines the hour glass body that captivated Paris.


John Singer Sargent, Two Studies for Madame X, pencil, British Museum, London, UK


Although in this watercolor, she appears more slender and refined in evening attire, resembling the outfit worn in the final painting.

But when did Sargent decide to have Madame Gautreau stand?


John Singer Sargent, Madame Pierre Gautreau, c. 1883, watercolor, graphite on white paper, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts



The Scandal of the Strap

After missing the Salon of 1883, Sargent submits his portrayal of Madame Gautreau the following year.  Unfortunately, he totally miscalculates the adverse reaction—-the mocking laughter and shouts of “oh quel horreur” at its debut.  According again to eyewitness Ralph Curtis, Mde. Gautreau and her mere came to Sargent’s studio “bathed in tears”. I stayed them off but the mother returned and caught him and made a fearful scene…..

The off-the shoulder strap, though, particularly outrages nineteenth century Parisians. One more struggle and the lady will be free, a hostile critic from the newspaper Le Figaro comments sarcastically. Sargent tries to withdraw the painting from the exhibition but is refused; the jury also rejects his request to repaint the offending strap (which he did change afterward).


Original version of Madame Pierre Gautreau, photograph, 1884, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY



She walked as Virgil speaks of a goddess–sliding–and seemed to take no steps. Her head and neck undulated like that of a young doe, and something about her gave you the impression of infinite proportion, infinite grace, and infinite balance.  Every artist want to make her in marble or paint.

Edward Simmons, artisit

Why did Madame X fail at its first showing?

Because of the scandal surrounding its debut, the true meaning of the painting was mostly lost.   For Madame Gautreau was supposed to represent a Classical goddess—serenely cool, wearing a diamond crescent, symbol of the mythical huntress Diana. Her features chiseled with the fine, sculpted line of an ancient statue, reinforced by her regal bearing.  The skin, too, unlike that of any ordinary woman—lavender tinged, enhanced by Gautreau’s own mysterious powder; only her ear remains untouched by cosmetics.  While the perfectly fitted black gown adds to her aura of divinity.

Yet, would such an immortal being need the support of an antique table?  Her porcelain arm pressing down on its surface, contrasting to her other relaxed limb. Was Sargent suggesting Madame Gautreau’s vulnerability?  Or just her inability to sustain an upright stance?


Madame X, repeat



Sargent would never recover his reputation in Paris, relocating permanently to London in 1886.  He took the disgraced Madame X with him, hanging it in his studio. In the first decade of the 1900s, he did loan the painting to several international exhibitions in Berlin, Rome, and San Francisco.  In 1916, he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, admitting to the museum’s director that I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.


John Singer Sargent in his studio with portrait of Madame Gautreau, photograph, c. 1883, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


The research for the above blog is based on the following sources:  John Singer Sargent edited by Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond (catalog for exhibition), Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1998, John Singer Sargent by Trevor Fairbrother, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers in association with National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011.

*Virginie Avegno Gautreau was the daughter of a Confederate major killed during the Civil War.  When she was 8 years old, her French mother moved them both to Paris.


The above images are used solely for educational purposes.






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