In the long history of righteous indignation and the fools who would follow it, this story is one of my favorites:
While painting this portrait of a fellow US expatriate and Parisian banking heiress, John Singer Sargent refered to “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.” This double-edged comment characterized the unique relationship between Sargent and his subject Virginie Avegno Gautreau that resulted in one of the most stunning and controversial paintings of the 19th century. Virginie was the American widow of banker Pierre Gautreau and was one of the most sought after guests in Parisian society. Her startlingly pale skin and the distinct profile given by her Avegno nose was a sight to behold in the many opera houses, galleries and salons of Paris.
Unlike many formal portraits, the idea for this one came from the painter to his subject. Virginie was constantly turning down offers by other artists. But Sargent was a man possessed. He wrote to a friend ” I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. If you are ‘bien avec elle’ and will see her in Paris, you might tell her I am a man of prodigious talent.” She finally conceded to Sargent’s request based mainly on the fact that they were both Americans. As witnessed by the opening quote the sittings (or standings) were not pleasant affairs. Virginie was always late. She was also always preoccupied by her mother or by her young daughter, often complaining to Sargent about the length of their sessions.
When he finished the portrait he displayed it at the Paris Salon of 1884. For the sake of privacy and to be discreet he entitled the painting Madame X. But to the viewers, Virginie was instantly recognizable. Recognizable and ghastly. Many laughed at the twist of her right wrist while others were disgusted by the supernatural glow of her pale skin. But there was one other thing that outraged the viewers and judges, one thing that we don’t see in the painting to the right. The painting as we have it today was touched up by Sargent after the outrage of 1884. Originally, horror-of-horrors, the right strap on Virginie’s gown had fallen off the shoulder! This didn’t merely tempt the mind with the image of more skin but also suggested that she was on her way to or from some nefarious sexual encounter. After the outrage, Virginie and her mother begged Sargent to withdraw the painting, which he did with some regret. Virginie never recovered fully from the embarassment of the affair. Sargent moved to London, taking Madame X with him. For most of his life, the portrait would stay in his private studio, and in 1916 when he sold it to the Met he told the director that “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.”