Sargent and Madame X -- a shoulder, shock, horror


Strapless: John Singer Sargent & the Fall of Madame X, by Deborah Davis. Tarcher Penguin. 262 pages. $24.95.

This is a strange book: a brief biography of the renowned artist John Singer Sargent, melded with a light social history of the belle epoque in France, plus a patchy account of the life of Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, a.k.a. Madame X, subject of a famous Sargent portrait. The disparate elements add up to a book that -- no surprise -- lacks coherence and depth.

The author would have been better off publishing Strapless as a magazine article. As is, the story of how Sargent and Gautreau collaborated on a work of art that, at least in the 1880s, drew public scorn, seems too thin to be worthy of 16 chapters.

But author Davis loves the paintings of Sargent, especially the large, startling Madame X portrait, which hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum. Her passion is the jumping off point for her investigation of Madame X, who was born in New Orleans of wealthy French-Creole parents in 1859. After Virginie Avegno's father was killed in the battle of Shiloh, her mother took the family to Paris. There, the young American grew into a society "it" girl, a woman renowned for her beauty but little else. She married young to an older man and afterward led a frivolous existence of endless parties, teas and opera evenings. She indulged in adulterous affairs, most notably with a charismatic gynecologist, Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi, the subject of another Sargent portrait.

At the time Sargent encountered Gautreau she was a celebrity in decadent Paris society, covered regularly in the gossip columns and held up as the epitome of chic sophistication. And in his portrait of her, Sargent reflected that image precisely, and at the same time captured her pale, flawless skin and striking profile. Yet, when the portrait was exhibited at the Salon in 1884, it was condemned -- thought to be hideous and vulgar. The denizens of the beau monde did not want to see their world revealed so accurately. Only a handful of critics realized that integral to this depiction of Amelie was an acknowledgment of the narcissistic, arrogant environment in which she flourished.

Sargent chose a form-fitting black gown with silver straps for his subject to wear, and had one of the straps falling off her right shoulder as she looked away over her left shoulder. The fallen strap shocked many viewers for what it implied about the morals of Paris most famous beauty. The exhibition included many more explicit paintings, including one of nude Romans frolicking with Bacchus, but it was Sargent's work that offended the crowd.

Davis recounts as precisely as the limited historical record allows what happened next to Amelie. She had had no objection to the painting before it was shown publicly, but when others disliked it, she rejected it too. Her mother and she tried to get Sargent to withdraw the picture from the exhibition, but that was impossible. Afterwards she was "ruined," never to recover her pre-eminent position in Parisian society. Attention shifted to younger, fresher beauties.

Meanwhile Sargent, 28 at the time, found the response confounding and upsetting. As soon as the painting was returned to him, he painted out the fallen strap, and put it instead on Amelie's shoulder, thus blunting the image's impact. But he then hung on to the painting for decades, finally selling it to the Met in 1916. "On account of the row I had with the lady years ago, ... the picture should not be called by her name," he wrote to museum officials. In the same letter he wrote of the portrait: "I suppose it is the best thing I have done."

Clare McHugh, founding editor of the men's magazine Maxim, is now an editor-at-large at Time Inc. She has served as editor-in-chief of New Woman and executive editor of Marie Claire.

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