15 Salacious Facts About John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X

Today, John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Madame X is regarded as a brilliant and tasteful depiction of classical beauty and femininity—so it might shock you to learn that when the American artist first unveiled this painting in 1884, all hell broke loose.

1. SARGENT BEGGED HIS MODEL TO POSE FOR THIS PORTRAIT.

Madame X was actually Madame Virginie Gautreau, an American expat whose beauty was much admired in her adopted French homeland. Gautreau gained such renown for her beauty that she received frequent overtures from awestruck artists in search of a muse, and she routinely rejected them. 

While living in Paris, the twenty-something Sargent reached out to Gautreau through a mutual friend, to whom he wrote, "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 … you might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent." Finally, after two years of his begging, the glamorous Gautreau agreed to begin sitting for Sargent in early 1883. 

2. MADAME X HAD A BIZARRE, POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS BEAUTY REGIMEN.

To achieve the pale complexion one art critic later derided as “cadaverish,” Gautreau is rumored to have eaten arsenic wafers (modern researchers have determined it more likely to be rice powder) and used a lavender-colored face powder. As a clever contrast, she rouged her ears and dyed her hair red with henna. 

3. THE ANCIENT WORLD INFLUENCED HER STYLING. 

The way Madame X wears her hair is a nod to the styles of the bygone Hellenic era. Her tiara, with a dazzling diamond crescent, is an allusion to Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon. Combined, these could be considered clues to this lady's nighttime hobbies. 

4. GAUTREAU WAS AN INFURIATING MUSE.

Having finally secured this great beauty, Sargent drew a series of sketches to experiment with various poses and props. Gautreau gamely turned her head, held a champagne glass, and lounged on a sofa. But she was a restless sitter. When she demanded months-long breaks from modeling, Sargent had no recourse. Growing frustrated, the artist complained he was still "struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Mme. Gautreau." 

5. SARGENT WAS INITIALLY UNSURE OF THE PAINTING'S MERIT.

Sargent set out to create Portrait of Madame X to cement his reputation in France's art world, but months of managing his fickle model tainted his feelings about the piece. In late 1883, the unsure artist confessed in a letter, "One day I was dissatisfied with it and dashed a tone of light rose over the former gloomy background. I turned the painting upside down, retired to the other end of the studio and looked at it under my arm. Vast improvement. The slender figure of the model shows to much greater advantage. The picture is framed and on a great easel, and Carolus has been to see it and said, 'You can send it to the Salon with confidence.' Encouraging, but false. I have made up my mind to be refused." 

6. IT SPARKED AN UPROAR WHEN IT WAS UNVEILED. 

Despite Sargent’s gloomy predictions, Portrait of Madame X was accepted for the Paris Salon of 1884. But it didn’t receive the warm reception for which he had hoped: Critics seethed over the nearly bare shoulders and a bit of cleavage they found too provocative. 

The Gazette des beaux-arts critic Louis de Fourcaud described the crowd's reaction: "Epithets crisscross in the air—Detestable! Boring! Curious! Monstrous! ... One could darken 10 pages with the one-word comments heard in front of this picture." 

7. THE PAINTING HURT ITS MODEL'S REPUTATION, TOO.

Before the painting debuted, Gautreau was already the target of gossip for her seductive style and indiscreet extramarital affairs. But these were matters not meant for polite conversation. Many felt Sargent's Portrait of Madame X laid bare Gautreau's dirty laundry in a public forum. After the piece's unveiling, her mother, Marie Virginie de Ternant, made quite a scene screaming at Sargent, "All Paris is making fun of my daughter. She is ruined … She'll die of chagrin." 

8. GAUTREAU'S MOTHER WANTED THE PIECE PULLED DOWN.

De Ternant first approached Sargent about taking the painting down. While her charges of defamation and screams greatly upset him, he initially refused to remove Portrait of Madame X from the exhibition. When that failed, she went to the Salon itself, whose board also rejected her demand. Eventually, Sargent did take the painting down, but rumors persisted it was to keep it away from the family. He wouldn't exhibit the piece again for years. 

9. THE INTENSE REACTION SPURRED SARGENT TO REVISE.

When Portrait of Madame X debuted, it was more suggestive than it is today. The left strap of its iconic dress dangled daringly off of Madame's slim shoulder in 1884. But racked with self-doubt in the wake of its horrendous reception, Sargent addressed criticisms that her garb was “flagrantly insufficient” by repositioning the strap onto her shoulder proper. 

10. PORTRAIT OF MADAME X MADE SARGENT FAMOUS OVERSEAS.

The French scandal surrounding the portrait prompted Sargent to flee the country entirely. He moved to London before eventually settling in New York. When he began exhibiting the piece again in 1905, Americans and the British were in awe of Sargent's skill at capturing his subject in a flattering and captivating manner. In both nations, he became hotly sought for commissioned work. 

11. AN INCOMPLETE COPY LIVES IN LONDON.  

During the tortuous creation of Portrait of Madame X, Sargent worked on a copy, which today is on display at the Tate Britain.

12. THE PAINTING IS LARGER THAN LIFE.

The piece measures in at  82 inches by 43.25 inches, or nearly 7 feet by 4 feet.

13. SARGENT CONSIDERED IT HIS GREATEST WORK.

Early on, Sargent hoped his portrait of the mesmerizing Madame would define his career—and it eventually did. Portrait of Madame X was not just Sargent's most controversial work, but the one for which he would become best known. Though the initial response was nightmarish, the painting’s defiant attitude and stunning style have made it one of the most admired portraits in Western art. Over the years, Sargent came to appreciate his masterpiece’s merits. After keeping the piece for over 30 years, he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum in 1916, admitting, "I suppose it is the best thing I have done." 

14. EVEN DECADES LATER, SARGENT STILL WORRIED ABOUT HIS MODEL'S REPUTATION.

A condition of the sale to the Met was that the museum "disguise the sitter's name." 

15. GAUTREAU HOPED ANOTHER PORTRAIT WOULD REVAMP HER IMAGE. 

Though her ego and reputation took a beating, Gautreau did not die of chagrin as her mother had predicted. She did shy away from the spotlight for a time, but in 1891, Gustave Courtois painted another portrait of her in a dress—complete with a strap falling down—that was exhibited at the Salon, but it failed to generate any notoriety. In 1898, she felt confident enough to allow another artist to immortalize her in a portrait. French painter Antonio de La Gándara also focused on this beauty's shoulders and distinctive profile, but Madame Pierre Gautreau presents this scandal-plagued socialite in a far more conservative light. 

Over a century after its creation, Portrait of Madame X has moved past its scandalous start, and Gautreau has become a style icon revered around the world for decades. Her legacy is one of elegance, beauty, and grace. Her scandals just make her more interesting.

Kids Can Join Children's Book Author Mo Willems for Daily "Lunch Doodles" on YouTube

Screenshot via YouTube
Screenshot via YouTube

For children interested in taking drawing lessons, there are few better teachers than Mo Willems. The bestselling author and illustrator has been charming young readers for years with his Pigeon picture book series. Now, from the Kennedy Center, where he's currently the artist-in-residence, Willems is hosting daily "Lunch Doodles" videos that viewers can take part in wherever they are. New lessons are posted to the Kennedy Center's YouTube channel each weekday at 1:00 p.m. EST.

With the novel coronavirus outbreak closing schools across the country, many kids are now expected to continue their education from home. For the next several weeks, Willems will be sharing his time and talents with bored kids (and their overworked parents) in the form of "Lunch Doodles" episodes that last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. In the videos, Willems demonstrates drawing techniques, shares insights into his process, and encourages kids to come up with stories to go along with their creations.

"With millions of learners attempting to grow and educate themselves in new circumstances, I have decided to invite everyone into my studio once a day for the next few weeks," Willems writes for the center's blog. "Grab some paper and pencils, pens, or crayons. We are going to doodle together and explore ways of writing and making."

If kids don't want to doodle during lunch, the videos will remain on YouTube for them to tune in at any time. The Kennedy Center is also publishing downloadable activity pages to go with each episode on its website [PDF]. For more ways to entertain children in quarantine or isolation, check out these livestreams from zoos, cultural institutions, and celebrities.

Dreaming of Your Favorite City? This Website Will Create a Personalized Haiku Poem About It for You

OpenStreetMap Haiku will capture the colorful character of your hometown in a few (possibly silly) phrases.
OpenStreetMap Haiku will capture the colorful character of your hometown in a few (possibly silly) phrases.
vladystock/iStock via Getty Images

You no longer need to spend all your free time struggling to capture the vibe of your favorite city in a few carefully chosen syllables—OpenStreetMap Haiku will do it for you.

The site, developed by Satellite Studio, uses the information from crowdsourced global map OpenStreetMap to create a haiku that describes any location in the world. According to Travel + Leisure, the poems are based on data points like supermarkets, shops, local air quality, weather, time of day, and more.

“Looking at every aspect of the surroundings of a point, we can generate a poem about any place in the world,” the developers wrote in a blog post. “The result is sometimes fun, often weird, most of the time pretty terrible. Also probably horrifying for haiku purists (sorry).”

The results are also often waggishly accurate. For example, here’s a haiku describing Washington, D.C.:

“The same pot of coffee
Fresh coffee from Starbucks
The desk clerk.”

In other words, it seems like the city runs on compulsive coffee refills and paperwork. And if you thought life in Brooklyn, New York, was a combination of alcohol-fueled outings to basement bars and traffic-filled trips into the city, this poem probably confirms your suspicions:

“Getting drunk at The Nest
Today in New York
Green. Red. Green. Red.”

The website’s creators were inspired by Naho Matsuda’s Every Thing Every Time, a 2018 art installation outside Theatre Royal in Newcastle, England, that used data points to generate an ever-changing poem about the city.

Wondering what OpenStreetMap Haiku has to say about your hometown? Explore the map here.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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