Madame X in Literature and X-Rays

November 8, 2010 // Filed under Uncategorized

As a follow-up to the Saturday Samplers book group discussion of  Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis, here are a few points of interest that we learned.

The original version of the painting, Portrait de Mme ***, which caused such a stir at the Paris Salon of 1884, was captured in only one black and white photograph, seen above. The pose of Madame Gautreau with her jeweled strap seductively slipping off her shoulder brought notoriety to a painting which was not well received for several other reasons. Both the artist and subject were duly shocked by the critical furor, and Sargent retreated to England while Madame Gautreau (Mme. X) spent the rest of her life trying to reclaim her former position in Parisian society. At some point, Sargent repainted the strap to fit her shoulder (see image below.) Still believing that it was his finest work, he later sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By coincidence, two books published in 2003 (with similar book covers) addressed the compelling story behind this famous portrait. Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X used historical resources to describe Sargent’s career and how it intersected with Mme. X in this one painting. While art historians know that there are many intriguing tales behind works of art, it takes a writer looking for a book subject to bring them to life for the general public. A second writer, Gioia Diliberto, chose to focus on Madame Gautreau, rather than the painting itself, in her publication, I am Madame X: a novel. This book is a highly imaginative, fictional account of an American woman born of French descent whose goal in life was to make a name for herself in belle époque France.

For interesting insights into how Sargent struggled with his composition of Madame X, repainting her profile at least eight times, please refer to the Saturday Samplers blog. There you will find a technical analysis done by the Metropolitan Museum of Art using X-radiography. You can see an X-ray image of the repainted strap as well.

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