Madame X: Portrait of a Scandal
Updated: May 28
There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.
Madame X is undoubtedly one of the most famous paintings in the history of Western art. It was certainly John Singer Sargent's most controversial painting, and by the time he sold it to the Met 30 years after it was painted, his verdict was that it was the best thing he'd ever done. I think it is a safe bet that many people who have never even heard of Sargent would still recognize this work. But the scandal that accompanied its exhibition at the 1884 Paris Salon made it clear that he had little future as a commissioned portrait painter in France, leading him to decamp to England. In this essay I would like to bring together some diverse facts about and perspectives on the painting plus some speculations of my own. Much of the commentary on Madame X and its history, both by me and by others, though thought-provoking, is speculative, and I will signal those speculations with words such as perhaps, possibly, and might.
John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925) was obsessed, in an aesthetic way, with fellow American Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau (1859 - 1915), wife of French banker Pierre Gautreau. He pursued her, seeking permission to paint her. She did not commission the portrait, and she never owned it. Rather, he sought her out and kept the painting for himself.
Why did Sargent and Gautreau want to do this portrait? The answer is the same for both of them: advancement. Sargent was an up and coming painter in Paris and wanted to make a splash so as to win commissions. The painting was an advertisement for his work; it was not primarily meant as something for Gautreau to hide away in her home to feed her vanity, as commissioned portraits typically were. It belonged to him and he could display it as he pleased. Sargent's motivation makes perfect sense. He was, in effect, a small businessman, albeit one whose product was "refined."
Gautreau wanted a different kind of advancement. She was what the British and the French of the time called a "professional beauty," flaunting her looks in an attempt to gain a place in high society.
"High society" does not mean the same thing now as it did then. In fact, we hardly use the term anymore. There's no "society page" in newspapers anymore, and if the old rich have disdain for the new rich, the new rich don't seem to care. In fact, in today's world the "new rich" are often entrepreneurs and inventors such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, who are very much looked up to. There are still debutante balls, but the girls in white probably wear jeans or shorts most of the time and are not really being put up on display for prospective husbands as "debs" were in the old days. Of course, old money rich people still get their names put on college buildings and dress up for openings at art exhibits, but it's just not the same as in Gautreau's day.
In many ways high society as it was in Gautreau's time, with its immense snobbery, is a world well lost, but the celebrity culture that is its closest equivalent today is, with its bottomless vulgarity, perhaps even more offensive. When I try to think of a modern parallel to Virginie Gautreau, someone famous for her looks and her love affairs and for pretty much nothing else, what I come up with is Kim Kardashian. At least the old high society, with its preoccupation with class, had class in the other sense of the term.
So why was Sargent obsessed with Gautreau as a subject? According to art historian Elizabeth L. Block, Sargent openly admired not only Gautreau’s features but also her use of cosmetics. Writing in February 1883 to his friend Vernon Lee, an author on aesthetics, Sargent said:
“Do you object to people who are fardées [made-up women] 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 shall be more than pleased.” Sargent tended toward theatrical sitters, and as [art historian Susan] Sidlauskas points out, in this era of Baudelaire, who wrote in favor of the artifice of cosmetics, Sargent did not mind, even relished, painting “a woman who had already painted herself.” To Sargent, Gautreau’s use of cosmetics may have signaled an exoticness—in Lee’s words, “the exotic, far-fetched quality which always attracted John Sargent”—further drawing him toward Gautreau as a compelling subject. [Block 2018]
The chlorate-of-potash to which Sargent referred is potassium chlorate, which has more recently been used as an herbicide. The use of this chemical as a cosmetic is of a piece with women of the time swallowing diluted arsenic to make their skin translucent [Sidlauskas 2001] and, more notoriously, wearing body-deforming tight-laced corsets. I can't get a definitive answer to the question of whether Gautreau wore a corset for the painting, but she certainly looks thin-waisted.
Sargent's work on the painting stretched over 1883 and 1884, with many preliminary sketches, watercolors, and an oil, in several different poses. Finally, he finished and was happy with what he had done, as was Gautreau. He proudly had it displayed at the Salon. He wanted to show it off, and was not going to let anyone overlook it: it was almost eight feet tall. In a vain attempt to keep Gautreau's name out of the newspapers, Sargent titled the painting Portrait de Mme ***. (The name by which we know it, Madame X, came much later, and it is anachronistic to refer to the painting with that designation in this stage of its history.)
The painting was a flop. It caused a scandal. Why? Most obviously it was because, as Sargent originally painted it, one of Gautreau's straps had fallen off her shoulder, suggesting greater exposure to come, in keeping with Gautreau's reputation for having extramarital affairs. Here is a photo of the painting as it was exhibited.
The ridicule was extensive. Sargent hid behind doors in the Salon to avoid the comments. The painting got bad reviews in the press and was caricatured in cartoons such as this one:
In addition to jeering at the fallen strap, critics attacked the complexion of the figure, which was described as cadaverous and moldy, among other unappetizing qualities. Besides covering her exposed skin with lavender powder, Gautreau rouged her ears and penciled in her eyebrows. Sargent had difficulty painting her skin because she made herself up for nighttime, while he was trying to paint her by daylight. He did his best to correct for the illumination, but perhaps he did not entirely succeed. Or more likely, the problem was that, while many onlookers found Gautreau's appearance attractive or titillating in person, seeing it represented as Art created a kind of moral-emotional dissonance that manifested itself as repugnance.
Be that as it may, it seems plausible that there was a more profound dynamic at work. The reactions to Portrait de Mme *** seem disproportionate to the alleged flaws of the painting, inviting speculation that the antipathy might have had another, unstated source.
The figure's self-confident, even haughty, demeanor could not have escaped notice. The feminine ideal of the time was the "living statue," [Block 2018] Gautreau was in many ways a living statue in person, womanly, poised, and wearing a classical hairstyle. She was said to have glided rather than walked, and she did put her beauty on display as a living statue was expected to. But the way in which Sargent posed her took her appearance beyond the acceptable boundaries of the type.
The woman in the painting is not charming or yielding, as women in that era were supposed to be. If she is a living statue, she is a statue of a proud goddess, above mere mortals, but not a goddess whose superiority was at a safely mythological distance, nor a prettified figure from an Academic painting. She is bold, modern, sexual, and inescapably present.
Her head is turned, not to form a decorative cameo, but in a display of aloofness, while at the same time she flaunts her erotically-costumed body straight on. Her right arm and neck exhibit not only tension in their twists but also gracefulness, qualities which together signal strength of both spirit and body. By her aloofness, she defies the male gaze without giving up her own womanhood. She defies the female gaze, too, by showing women that they need not yield to men. Such defiance would surely antagonize many viewers of the day and might in part explain the disproportionate reaction the painting received.
We take the self-assertive woman more for granted today, so we have to voyage through time to see how controversial she was in 1884, when Paris, ostensibly the capital of sophistication in the Western world, was not ready for her. But there is something more here than the shocked reactions of small-minded people. In the context of the portrait's creation we might even go so far as to say that Sargent and Gautreau, perhaps unwittingly, helped invent the modern woman.
It is a mystery as to how she and Sargent thought that giving the painting the anonymous title Portrait de Mme *** would help Gautreau achieve advancement. Modern chronicler Deborah Davis claims that while the mystery title was intended to keep a lady's name out of the newspapers, high society was supposed to recognize her. Maybe this was intended as a kind of coy peek-a-boo with public perception that backfired when the public rejected the portrait.
Gautreau and her mother implored Sargent to withdraw the painting from the Salon, but he refused, saying he had painted Gautreau just as she dressed and that the painting looked no worse than the reality. But apparently in private he was unnerved by the negative attention, because he wanted to temporarily withdraw the portrait and repaint the strap into a conventional position and then resubmit it. One of the jurors of the Salon told him that such things simply were not done, so Sargent did not repaint it until after the Salon was over.
The question arises, why did he repaint it at all? Maybe he thought of exhibiting it again, but he did not do so until 1905, in the meantime hanging it where he could see it in his studios. Maybe he thought he could sell it to Gautreau, but that would make him as naïve as Gautreau had been about her anonymity. Maybe he thought he had gone too far and needed to "retrieve his error." It is sad to think that Sargent might have lost his nerve when it came to his greatest work. In any case, Sargent's contribution to the birth of the modern woman would have to wait a generation.
Legend has it that the scandal of the painting destroyed Gautreau's reputation and that she became a ruin of a woman. This was not the case. There may have been a brief setback, but then Gautreau went right on being the professional beauty she had been, carrying on her "scandalous" love affairs that if anything enhanced her reputation. Remember that in nineteenth-century France, a prostitute could become a countess, as was the case with Marie-Anne Detourbay (1837 - 1908). Years later Gautreau went through a rather dramatic decline, but there does not seem to be any connection that and the debacle that was Portrait de Mme ***.
Gautreau had two more "serious" portraits of herself painted after Portrait de Mme ***. Each also presented her standing in profile against an indeterminate dark background. The last one, pictured middle below, was her favorite, but look at the one on the right, from 1891:
Here she looks less haughty and more conventionally feminine in her downy white dress, but the similariites between this portrait and Portrait de Mme *** are quite striking:
Body facing mostly forward, head turned to profile
Henna in the hair
Body as ornament, i.e. minimum of distracting jewelry
Dark, undefined background
Strap slipping off of shoulder
It is almost as if the lady was trying to recreate Sargent's depiction of her. Apparently by this time Mme Gautreau was willing to be a little more daring. But standards in general had changed from the mid-1880s to the 1890s. The strap-off-the-shoulder look became quite common. In fact Sargent's friend Giovanni Boldini, who did the portrait of him above, rather specialized in it.
Upon arriving in Britain, Sargent went on something of a retreat at a village called Broadway, but he was soon painting portraits again. One of his first was Mrs. Cecil Wade (Frances Frew Wade), known as Portrait of a Lady.
Notice the similarities and differences between the Portrait de Mme *** and Portrait of a Lady.
Both have generic titles, although no one was trying to conceal Mrs. Wade's identity
Both are painted with the head turned to profile with the body straight on or nearly so
Both faces have strong chins, thin lips, a short upper lip, and arched eyebrows
Both display their slender waists
The head and body of both are against a rather indeterminate dark background that highlights the complexion
No one would mistake them for sisters, but the resemblance is there, at least at an abstract level. Mrs. Wade, although she was only 23 when the portrait was painted, looks like a strong-willed individual, not haughty, but proud.
The differences, however, are telling. Gautreau is wearing a black dress and is relatively unornamented, while Mrs. Wade is wearing a white dress with multiple bracelets and a choker with a pendant, and of course her skin is covered up more with clothing and less—if at all—with make-up. Since Sargent routinely picked out the wardrobe, settings, and poses of his sitters, the similarities and differences may have been deliberate. In fact, one has to wonder whether Portrait of a Lady was an ironic commentary on Portrait de Mme ***, as if Sargent is stating that yes, he will be more conservative, but he will not give up everything that made the more daring painting special. Or perhaps he was just working out a personal archetype.
(As an aside, it is worth noting that Portrait of a Lady was painted five years after Sargent's good friend Henry James published his great novel of the same title.)
After the Mme *** debacle Sargent's career largely ceased to be the "uncanny spectacle" of his youth, to use James's phrase. He did display great technical and emotional depth, as in Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, and of course penetrating insight into character in his portraits, but to my knowledge he never again undertook for public display anything so uncanny as Portrait de Mme *** . It would be going much too far to say that he had had his spirit broken, but it is an almost tragic thing to say when one is 60 that the best work one had ever done was done at the age of 28.
With a few exceptions, Sargent abandoned commissioned portraits of rich society people in 1907, devoting the rest of his life to charcoals of friends and other artists, watercolors, and public murals. The murals are among Boston's great treasures. Unfortunately, trends in the art world left Sargent behind, even before his death, and he came to he regarded as, to paraphrase a remark made about Abraham Lincoln, a first-rate second-rate painter. Here's a representation of his reduced status.
Note how "liberated" the woman admiring the Picasso is, while the dowdy woman is peering at the Sargent. The latter is so unhip that she goes out with her hair in curlers (and takes her daughter out in curlers too), while the other woman goes out with loose hair and tight jeans.
So matters stood for many years. But after a time, Sargent's star rose again. In the art history world came biographies general and articles specialized, as well as numerous collections of images of Sargent's works. Many museum exhibits were assembled. In the popular world there have been a lot of coffee table books and posters, including at least two books about Gautreau, as well as a ballet. Sargent has come to be known as the master painter that he was.
In 1916, 32 years after he painted it and nine years before his death, Sargent sold the portrait of Gautreau to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He requested that, due to the conflict he had had with the lady, her name not be attached to it. Thus was born the title Madame X, a title mysterious, alluring, and erotic, like the letter X itself. And the painting wasn't "Portrait of Madame X," just Madame X. Metaphorically, the title X'd out the flesh-and-blood Gautreau and leaves nothing behind but Sargent's fantasy. The title fits the enigmatic depiction of a woman not to be made real, an archetype rather than an individual.
In the end, however, the Met has not respected Sargent's wishes. It lists the painting as Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau). Whether this is in the name of historical accuracy or in a wish not to X out the woman completely I do not know. But either way the lady is still partially X'd out by being labeled with her husband's name and not her own.
Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau died a year before the sale. She was never referred to in her lifetime as Madame X. That is just romance. But she will forever be known by a name she did not choose and perhaps would not have wanted. In any case, she will never escape the association and will not survive death except in its shadow. Perhaps she would not have cared; she had a life, often exciting and glamorous, outside of posing for a painting that caused a brief, albeit intense, scandal.
Madame X is now on display at the Met, where it attracts admiring crowds. Some people still find her complexion off-putting. Some can't see how the painting was ever controversial. But I think everybody agrees that the portrait is striking and that in the end it is a very good advertisement for John Singer Sargent, just as he wanted it to be when he painted it, as well as, of course, a bold artistic statement.
Elizabeth L. Block, “Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau: Living Statue,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 17, no. 2 (Autumn 2018)
Deborah Davis, Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X, TarcherPerigee, 2004
Gioia Dilberto, I am Madame X: a Novel, Scribner, 2003
Trevor Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist, Yale University Press, 2000
Stephanie L. Herdrich, How Madame X Came to the Met, Metropolitan Museum of Art website, 2016
Mimi's Musings, Discussion of Rockwell painting, March 6, 2020
Dorothy Moss, John Singer Sargent, "Madame X" and "Baby Millbank," The Burlington Magazine, May 2001
Susan Sidlauskas, Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent's "Madame X", American Art, volume 15, no. 3, 2001
Marc Simpson, Richard Ormond, et al., Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent, Yale University Press, 1997
Christopher Wheeldon, Strapless (a ballet) starring Natalia Osipova as Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, Royal Opera House, 2015/16 season