Portrait of Madame X  

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Portrait of Madame X (1884) by John Singer Sargent
Portrait of Madame X (1884) by John Singer Sargent

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Madame X or Portrait of Madame X is the informal title of a portrait by John Singer Sargent of a young socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, wife of Pierre Gautreau.

One of Paris' notorious beauties, Gautreau wore lavender powder and prided herself on her appearance.

Madame X is a study in opposition. Sargent shows a woman posing ostentatiously in a black satin dress with jeweled straps, a dress that reveals and hides at the same time. The portrait is characterized by the pale flesh tone of the subject contrasted against a dark colored dress and background.

There is a certain assertion and showiness in the expanse of white skin — from her high forehead down her graceful neck, shoulders, and arms. Although the black of her dress is bold, it is also deep, recessive, and mysterious. She is surrounded by a rich brown which is at once luminous and dark enough to provide contrast to the skin tones.

Sargent chose the pose for Gautreau carefully: her body boldly faces forward while her head is turned in profile. A profile is both assertion and retreat; half of the face is hidden while, at the same time, the part that shows can seem more defined than full face.

The table provides support for Gautreau, and echoes her curves and stance. At the time, her pose was considered sexually suggestive. As originally exhibited, one strap of her gown had fallen down Gautreau's right shoulder, suggesting the possibility of further revealment; "One more struggle", wrote a critic in Le Figaro, "and the lady will be free". (Perhaps unknown to the critic, the bodice was constructed over a metal and whalebone foundation and could not have possibly fallen; the shoulder straps were ornamental).

When the painting first appeared at the Paris Salon of 1884, people were shocked and scandalized; the sitter's mother requested that Sargent withdraw the painting from the exhibition. Sargent refused, saying he had painted her "exactly as she was dressed, that nothing could be said of the canvas worse than had been said in print of her appearance". Later, Sargent overpainted the shoulder strap to raise it up and make it look more securely fastened. He also changed the title, from the original Portrait de Mme ***, to Madame X — a name more assertive, dramatic and mysterious, and, by accenting the impersonal, giving the illusion of the woman archetype.

Seven years after Sargent painted Madame Gautreau, Gustave Courtois painted her. As in the earlier painting, the portrait shows her face in profile. She wears the same style of dress, with Courtois's portrait showing a bit more skin. The strap of her dress hangs off her shoulder much as it had in Sargent's portrait. This time, however, the portrait was well received by the public.

Gautreau's and Sargent's intertwined stories are the subject of Strapless by Deborah Davis (Tarcher Penguin 2004).

In Pop Culture

In the 2007 film Charlie Wilson's War, a parody of the painting is displayed prominently in the mansion of Joanne Herring, played by Julia Roberts: the painting appears with Herring's head and hair, her dogs at her feet, and the strap has returned low around the biceps, as painted by Sargent originally.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Portrait of Madame X" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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