John Singer Sargent - Madame X

by Sarah Baur


In the painting "Madame X" by John Singer Sargent, a lady in a black revealing evening dress is portrayed in relatively monochrome coloring. The artist's dynamic contrapposto pose emphasizes the contours of her particular profile and neck, as well as those of her shoulders and arms, which stand out clearly against the dark background due to the light incarnate material. This tense pose thus radiates elegance, self-assurance and, despite the averted posture, a seductive attraction to the viewer. In the first version of the painting, which was also exhibited in the Paris Salon, the left strap of the dress is also shown slipping provocatively from the shoulder. For the tastes of the time, this was a step too far and was later revised by Sargent. The elegance of the sitter's silhouette nevertheless underscores the emblematic effect evoked by the few decorative elements. They all have classical associations: the tiara in the shape of a crescent moon was chosen by the sitter herself and is a typical attribute of the Greek goddess Artemis (Roman: Diana) - the virgin goddess of the moon and hunting. The table legs taper upward upon closer inspection into winged sirens - femme fatales from Greek mythology who plunged sailors to their doom. Thus Sargent depicted her as both a sublime goddess and a seductive femme fatale. This and the neutral background of the picture make the Madame seem unapproachable and almost fantastic to the viewer.

The sitter was Madame Virginie Gautreau. Like Sargent, she was American and lived in Paris, where she married the banker Pierre Gautreau. The "it girl" of her time, she was often the focus of gossip in Parisian society and was known for her unusual beauty and the bluish complexion of her skin. Historians even believe that Madame Gautreau probably ingested small amounts of arsenic to obtain this tint. Sargent was also equally fascinated by this mysteriously eccentric personality, with her striking and erotic appearance. He had, as he himself said, a great desire to paint her portrait, which was to become a tribute to her beauty. Thus, the portrait was created not from a commission from the depicted herself, but from the fascination of the artist.


The painting process, however, was not as short-lived as Sargent had originally envisioned, as Madame Gautreau, according to his lore, was a rather restless model, but Sargent also had a hard time finding a suitable pose that could do justice to his ideas. In fact, the final pose is not necessarily typical of the artist's portraits. In the end, he made about 30 studies and sketches before Madame X was created in the final version.

Sargent painted the Madame as a fatal femme fatale, and so the painting became even his own undoing in a sense. But Sargent was aware of the risk when he exhibited the portrait at the Paris Salon in 1884. He therefore did not include Madame Gautreau's name in the title, in order to preserve her anonymity should mocking gossip ensue. And it did.


For Parisian society and conventional taste, the strange-looking skin color and the overly provocative depiction of the lady was so inappropriate and bizarre that the painting earned all sorts of criticism. Also, the identity of the lady remained no secret due to its notoriety.


Ralph Curtis, a friend of Sargent's, described how Sargent avoided meeting friends or critics at the exhibition. Curtis himself was disappointed by the color scheme, which he felt gave the impression of a corpse, as were female visitors who found it downright horrifying.


Ralph Curtis: „[...] found him dodging behind doors to avoid friends who looked grave. By the corridors he took me to see it. I was disappointed in the colour. She looks decomposed. All the women jeer 'Ah voila ''la belle!'' Oh quelle horreur!' etc.“ [Charteris, Evan: John Sargent, New York 1927, S. 61]


There were few contemporaries who were positive about the work, such as writer Judith Gautier. She made it clear that Sargent had depicted neither a mythological fantasy creature nor a grotesque female figure. She saw a convincing image of a modern woman, created with the greatest conscientiousness by a painter who was a master of his art.

Judith Gautier: „Est-ce une femme? Une chimère, la licorne héraldique cabrée à l'angle de l'ecu? Ou bien l'œuvre de quelque ornemaniste oriental à qui la forme humaine est interdite et qui voulant rappeler la femme, a tracé cette délicieuse arabesque? Non, ce n'est rien de tout cela, mais bien l'image très exacte d'une femme moderne religieusement copiée par un artiste maître de son pinceau

[Judith Gautier, 'Le Salon (Première Article)', Le Rappel, 1 Mai 1884, in: Ormond / Kilmurray (Hrsg.):

John Singer Sargent. Complete Paintings. (Bd. 1), S. 114]


After all, that was exactly what Sargent's portraits were about: representing modern personalities and reflecting the actuality of existing things, rather than any intellectual abstractions.


Nevertheless, more and more clients in Paris at the time turned away from Sargent and he was finally forced to leave the French metropolis and move to England instead.


The painting Madame X, which can now be seen as both a stylized icon and a work of masterful realism, also exudes a powerful physical presence and impresses the viewer with its refined design. Sargent created here a timeless masterpiece of unconventional elegance.


John Singer Sargent - Madame X

Oil on canvas, 1870, 160 x 102.9 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


John Singer Sargent - Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast

1882-83, oil on wood, 41 x 32 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


John Singer Sargent - Madame Gautreau (Madame X)

ca. 1883, study, 25,2 x 35,5 cm, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge USA