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.