John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1883-1884, oil on canvas, 82.1” x 43.3”, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
John Singer Sargent: How Not To Begin A Career
Madame X is the painting that ultimately ruined John Singer Sargent’s reputation in the Parisian art society. It is a portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, an American-born expatriate who was well known for her style and beauty. Sargent emphasized the elegant contours of Gautreau’s body and small waist by posing her body facing forward in a risqué, flesh-revealing dress, with her face to the side. Gautreau’s red ear demonstrates quite clearly the sitter’s preference for lavender face powder, an affectation intended to give her an aristocratic appearance.
This painting invited criticism because in addition to the obviously exposed nature of Gautreau’s skin, in the original version of this painting, the one that hung in the 1884 Paris Salon, the strap was falling from the her right shoulder. (He later repainted it so that the dress appeared more secure.)
Exhibiting the portrait probably was a big mistake. Sargent felt he had to move to London soon after the scandal he caused with Madame X. It would be a while before he earned commissions in London due to the notoriety that followed him there. It was a tragedy, really, since Sargent believed Madame X was his greatest accomplishment as a painter. Nevertheless, eventually he would rebound, becoming quite famous in America and, in turn, very much in demand as a portraitist in England.