Love at first sight, without knowledge or experience—is it possible? Safely, with art. I loved John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X the instant I saw it. The subject, I imagined as a coolly aristocratic Frenchwoman in her early thirties. The artist was a man half in love with her—and half in hate.
That ambivalence was all I got right.
Madame X, her portrait originally titled Mme*** (a winking offer of an impossible anonymity), was the whispered-about Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau. Only twenty-five, she was Creole, born in New Orleans but, yes, reared in Paris. Her husband was a nouveau-riche merchant banker, not an aristocrat. She was also sleeping with Dr. Samuel Pozzi, a gynecologist, art collector, and libertine whom Sargent had famously painted at home in a red dressing gown. And though Gautreau looked serene, she was easily bored, petulant, lazy, difficult, and, when she saw herself unveiled in the Salon, “bathed in tears.”
I had misread narcissism as elegant restraint. The Parisians were wiser, sharp enough to be shocked by the fallen strap of her gown and all it signified. “My daughter is lost—all of Paris mocks her,” Gautrea’s mother wailed. “My son-in-law will be forced to fight [i.e., a duel of honor]. She will die of embarrassment.”
Those who stand on shaky ground are quick to grab at indignation; how else can they defend themselves?
“With her striking profile, fashionable pallor, and exquisite figure, Amelie Gautreau circulated on the more daring fringes of Paris society—her hair and eyebrows henna-russet, her skin moon-glow pale,” Paul Fisher writes in a new biography, The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World. She was an acknowledged beauty—yet Fisher brings up a puzzling resemblance between her painted profile and that of Sargent’s close friend Albert de Belleroche. Sargent spent a lot of time with de Belleroche in the two years he was struggling to capture Gautreau. And in Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast, a small, intimate portrait he made a year before Madame X, her features are identical to those of de Belleroche in Head of a Young Man in Profile.
Did the two, in weird coincidence, resemble one another? Was Sargent so captivated by de Belleroche and so fed up with Gautreau that he superimposed the man’s features on hers? Or was he so consumed by his work on the larger portrait that he painted Gautreau everywhere? Unable to compare photographs, I study other paintings of de Belleroche, then look again at Madame X. The same slanted forehead; strong nose; sharp chin; and chiseled lips with a heavier upper lip, the lower drawn back. Sensual, forceful, desirous, contemptuous. Maybe Sargent exaggerated the features of both, painting traits instead of slavish likenesses.
In any case, the puzzle’s early nod to gender fluidity is appropriate. Sargent was drawn to bold, rule-breaking women, to bohemians, to cultural difference and gender nonconformity. And in his own life, he—well, who knows? Fisher’s main ambition for his otherwise beautiful biography seems to be chasing down every possible indication of homosexuality—not in judgment, but for the scholarly fun of revealing an old secret. He is too honest a researcher to ever suggest he has found definitive proof, so on we go, with gossip dangled and snatched away on every page.
What seems obvious and sufficient to me is Sargent’s love for the human form. How he drew his pleasure—does it even matter anymore? It did to him, and no doubt Fisher is right that it matters for posterity. It is good to know as much as possible about who we are, how we live, and who makes the art we love. But I am far more interested in his struggles with Madame X.
First, she challenged his palette. The lavender powder she sprinkled on her face and body left her, he sighed to a friend, “a uniform lavender or blotting-paper colour all over.” This curious pallor was “pretty in itself,” but artificial, and he described it as a “chlorate of potash-lozenge colour.” His portrait felt unfinished until he washed a light rose across the murky background to warm the contrast. “Vast improvement,” he muttered.
Meanwhile, he had choked back his impatience as she “postured and fidgeted in the studio over weeks and months.” Why did he keep at it? Fisher describes him as “fascinated by this haunting, somewhat outré figure, and perhaps also by her parallel world of transgressions and secrets.” Sargent had been so eager to have her sit for him that he asked friends to intercede and persuade her.
What he wound up painting was a persona, a self-created woman with a talent for insolent elegance. With one simple detail, one jeweled strap carelessly slipped from her shoulder, he suggested sex, languor, casual acquiescence. It was hard to look away.
Yet those who made their way to the back of the Salon and stood before the nearly lifesize painting … recoiled. “The profile is sharp, the eye microscopic, the mouth imperceptible, the color wan, the neck like a cord, the arm completely dislocated,” wrote a critic no doubt used to soft Beaux-Arts femininity.
Pelted with such insults, Sargent, who was only twenty-eight and had yet to learn indifference, left France. He was sure he would receive no more portrait commissions there. Instead, he painted the elite in Britain and the U.S.—not because he was a snob, but because they could afford to pay him. Perhaps, too, because they could afford to be exquisite, the perfect foil for his relaxed formalism. For himself, though, he painted men steering gondolas in Venice, crowds haunting cheap cafés in Spain, Bedouins in North Africa, and, again and again, a Black bellhop, elevator operator, and part-time contortionist in Boston.
Sargent’s bubbly, art-loving mother had taught him to travel, and travel had taught him to despise the suffocating norms and templates of the society that posed for him. The society that made him paint Gautreau’s fallen strap back into place. The society in which everyone, including him, kept secrets.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.