John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X

“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.” -John Singer Sargent


Portrait of Madame X is an oil portrait painted by John Singer Sargent for the Paris Salon of 1884. The model was Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, an American socialite and “professional beauty” who epitomized the ideal of sophisticated feminine beauty prevalent at the time.
“…the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.”


Gautreau was a difficult model, and it took Sargent the better part of a year to complete the portrait. Nevertheless, it was received badly. In the original painting, Gautreau’s right strap hung off of her shoulder, and this was taken to indicate that the rumors of her infidelities were true. Furthermore, her pose was considered too suggestive for polite society. People were scandalized. Gautreau was humiliated, and her mother demanded it be withdrawn from the exhibition.

Disheartened by the poor reception of his work, Sargent moved to London permanently. He later repainted the offending shoulder strap to sit on her shoulder, and displayed it in other exhibitions. When he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916, he said it had been his best work. 

Gautreau recovered from her embarrassment and was later painted by Gustave Courtois and Antonio de La Gandara, and these portraits were received well. She preferred both.

If you’d like to read more on the subject, Gioia Diliberto’s I Am Madame X is a masterful novel drawing on what is known about Virginie Gautreau to create a fictionalized account of her life and the creation and fallout of this famous portrait. I’ve read it, and it was totally engrossing. Certain details have stuck with me now for years, particularly how Gautreau maintained her unusual lilac-tinged complexion. You’ll have trouble finding a better way to visit Belle Epoque Paris for the day. You can check it out here

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