Monday, November 24, 2008

The Scandal of Sargent's Madame X

Yesterday, I finished reading "Strapless" by Deborah Davis, a fascinating history of John Singer Sargent's painting "Madame X". I saw this painting in 2006 when it was on loan to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts as part of their Americans in Paris exhibit, and this book has been on my reading list since then.

This painting of Amelie Gautreau nearly ruined Sargent's emerging career as a portraitist, as it was regarded by the Parisian public as quite risque and scandalous. Why? It all had to do with Amelie's dress.

In this photo taken of the painting at the Paris Salon in 1884, you can see that Sargent originally had painted the strap of Amelie's dress fallen off her shoulder. But the dress would have been considered risque even with the strap in place, as Amelie is quite bare and obviously not wearing the "proper" undergarments of the day - a chemise and corset.

Fashion in 1884 dictated that a woman be more covered up, usually with her chemise peeking out from her sleeves and at her decolletage. At a time when lace, fripperies, and frou-frou were de rigeur, Amelie's severe black gown seemed outrageous to the public. The dress was probably designed by Félix Poussineau, a former hairdresser to the Empress Eugénie, who made most of Amelie's wardrobe. And it is likely it was made to Amelie's exact instructions, as she was quite a controversial figure in Paris society, and strived to make a memorable impression wherever she went.

After the 1884 Salon ended, Sargent returned the painting to his studio, where he repainted the strap in it's proper place. After her very public disgrace, however, Amelie and her husband refused to purchase the painting from Sargent, and he moved to London in order to try to salvage his career. The painting remained hidden in his studio for 30 years. After Amelie's death, Sargent finally allowed the portrait to be shown on exhibit. It traveled to San Francisco in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. While on display there, Sargent approached Edward Robinson, the director of New York's Metropolitan Museum, offering it for sale. The museum purchased the painting for £1000, with Sargent's stipulation that the painting should not be called by Amelie's name. It became known officially as "Madame X".