Updated: Apr 8, 2022
I’ve finally gotten around to Madame X. John Singer Sargent met Virginie Gautreau in Paris some time in 1882. He was trying to launch his career at the time and apparently thought she would be the perfect pitch. So he asked to do her portrait and she obliged. The finished work went on display at the famous Salon in 1884 as "Portrait of Mme..."
The title did nothing to hide her identity, everyone seemed to recognize her. And the public reaction was discouraging to both painter and subject.
Originally the strap on her right shoulder was falling down around her arm. That little sensuous look of partial undress combined with her daring pose made many viewers consider the painting salacious and indecorous. What followed was a cascade of negative and often personal criticism. Her private morals were questioned, exacerbated by her prior infidelities, I’m sure. Some thought her complexion made her look decomposed, leading to terrible puns about her ‘frightful’ beauty. She was thoroughly embarrassed and I think he felt partly responsible. Some of his friends remember Sargent hiding behind doors to avoid talking to people who saw the painting. And then he was stunned by her mother’s request that he withdraw the portrait immediately. Even though he couldn’t bring himself to go that far, he repainted the shoulder strap after the exhibit ended.
All in all, it was a terrible outing and it derailed Sargent’s budding career in Paris. He left for London soon afterwards and spent his working years there. But, reminiscent of Leonardo and his Mona Lisa, Sargent kept Madame X in his personal collection. He made touch-ups here and there, mostly to the background colors, but didn’t display her publicly again until 1905. In the twilight of his career some years later, however, he stood by it as the best work he’d ever done.
Sargent finally parted with her in 1916 when The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought Madame X for the modest price of $4,770. The sale lets us peak behind the curtain of her famous title. More than 30 years had come and gone since that disastrous reception in Paris. Gautreau herself was gone, too, having passed away just the year before. But the memory still stung. Sargent, recalling the kerfuffle with Gautreau over the portrait, told The Met he didn’t want it to carry her name. And that’s when they worked out that mysterious title we know her by today. He didn’t elaborate so I don’t know what he was still feeling or thinking after all that time. But it’s a question I come back to every time I see her.