To us in the 21st century, masterworks in painting convey a classicism and elegance that seem nonexistent in the modern world. But in the case of Madame X, the scandal caused by John Singer Sargent’s painting of Amélie Gautreau rivaled any of today’s reality star disgraces.
The future Madame Gautreau was born into wealthy French Louisiana family, which owned rural plantations and residences in both New Orleans and Paris. But after the civil war, with disease and economic instability all around them, Amélie’s mother moved with her young daughter to Paris.
Paris in 1867 appeared as a shining new city, its ancient winding streets, disease-filled aqueducts, and crumbling architecture having been razed by Baron George Haussman in favor of new boulevards, state of the art water and sewer systems, and grand apartment buildings. But it wasn’t just the physical city that was changing – all this new construction created a new class of wealthy citizens, who may not have had social pedigrees, but they had the money to play. Consumerism was the game of the day – new grand magasins supplied an endless parade of new fashions in a “city of shopping”, and women of all classes had more money to spend (and personal credit accounts as well). It was said at the time that “half the women of Paris live for beauty – and the other half live from it”.
Amélie’s mother had plans for Paris, and those plans involved her daughter. The Avegnos were American, and certainly not suitable for royal marriage, but there were enough wealthy merchants and bankers to make up for it. Besides, Amélie was developing into a beautiful young woman, with a curvaceous figure, alabaster skin, copper-colored hair, and a distinctive nose that gave her a hint of aristocracy. And as her education was sheltered and minimal enough to keep her “charming”, she’d been groomed into the perfect Parisian trophy wife. So when “Pedro” Gautreau showed up, more than twice Amélie’s age and not very handsome – but with a solid reputation and an even more solid fortune – arrangements were made, and the couple were married.
Amélie began her society life cleverly, accentuating her figure with striking, neoclassical-styled gowns, and taking the new beauty trend of “powdering” to a new level. “Fardées”, as they were called, were women who used a lot of face powder, especially for evening. Amélie would use a pale violet shade – and lots of it – to accentuate the paleness of her skin. With her revealing gowns, simple coiffure with a diamond crescent pin, her pale skin and prominent nose set off by dark eyebrows and copper hair, she was so striking that people would turn and stare when she entered a ball or opera house, and she became famous outside society as well – crowds of people would stop traffic or stand on benches to get a glimpse of “La Belle Gautreau” in her carriage.
Amélie was a “professional beauty”, a nineteenth century Paris version of a celebutante, and there was much talk of what she did or did not do. Did her skin retain its whiteness without all that powder? Did she drink arsenic to maintain it? And who was she sleeping with? There were rumors that she was sleeping with several different men, as many of her class and beauty would – most marriages at the time were not love matches, and having safely delivered an heir, she would have been somewhat free to arrange her love life as she saw fit.
Artists also loved to talk about her – and they all wanted to paint portraits of her. She was beautiful in a very theatrical way, plus she had fame and money. She was, for lack of a better word, fabulous. And portrait painting was a very status-conscious business – society patrons pondered very carefully who they would entrust their image to, and portrait painters’ futures rested in the social status of their sitters.
John Singer Sargent was at this time a well-regarded young portraitist, known by the Paris academic judges as a gifted painter, even if he was American. Prodigiously talented, he would have preferred a more avant-garde artistic path, but his sickly mother and sister required his financial support, so it had been settled years ago – he would become a portraitist. He had already exhibited in the official Paris Salon a few times successfully, but he wanted to make an impact, and secure his career. And Amélie Gautreau would be a perfect subject.
So Sargent went to work at securing her permission. He was familiar with a friend of Amélie’s – a gifted gynecological surgeon named Dr. Pozzi. Rumors swirled about Dr. Pozzi’s affairs – he was a dashing figure gifted with enormous intellect and energy. He wrote several books on women’s health, invented the “bimanual manipulation” (which is still how gynecologists examine patients today), and would perform surgery in a white overcoat to demonstrate that it was possible to not spill even a drop of blood unnecessarily. But Sargent painted his portrait like this:
This was not the white-coated professional Dr. Pozzi – it was the devilishly handsome seducer, ready to disrobe(again). Sargent may have been a bit infatuated with the doctor himself – Dr. Pozzi was known to flirt heavily with men, even if he preferred women. Perhaps no one was immune to his charms – the actress Sarah Bernhardt called him “Dr. Dieu”(“Dr. God”). And he loved playing at love, mounting elaborate campaigns to secure his many affairs. He most probably had an affair with Amélie, and the two remained good friends. And his recommendation, added to several others, secured Amélie’s agreement to have Sargent paint her portrait.
Once Amélie agreed to have her portrait painted, Sargent went to work. He went through her wardrobe, as he did with most of his subjects, selecting a simple black gown to set off her paleness and figure. Amélie herself was usually seen in white or pastel gowns. But this dress, designed by a former hairdresser turned star couturier named Félix, contrasted mightily not only with her skin, but also with the more heavily embellished “birdcage” dresses of the time by other designers. Charles Worth may have been more well known, but for a young woman looking to display her figure, Félix’s designs were more modern than Worth’s heavily embellished concoctions.
There was only one problem: regarding the work of having her portrait painted, Amélie was a very bad subject. Sittings for portraits involved hours of posing for preliminary sketches, while the artist looked for the best way to portray the subject. Sargent knew this work had to be a masterpiece – Amélie was too famous, and this would be her first painted portrait. He wasn’t finding the right composition, and the creature who was so fascinating from afar was a crashing bore in person – she wasn’t interested in art or literature, and couldn’t stand the tedium of posing. Besides, she had a demanding social life – and that was her life. He confessed in a letter to a friend that he was finding it impossible to capture “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau”, sketched in watercolor here with a book:
The ladylike conventions of portraiture weren’t working – the young Madame Gautreau was too striking and controversial for a delicate portrait. But after a trip to Haarlem to see the Dutch master paintings, he knew how he would paint her. Painting her standing, her face turned in profile, her image would be unmistakeable. The palette of the painting would recall the great masters, and the work itself would be huge – larger than life. His energy renewed, Sargent went to work and produced, almost exactly, this painting:
Almost, because at some point in the process, the right strap of Madame’s dress fell down. And Sargent painted it that way. Maybe it added some realism to the painting – after all, the chain straps on the dress probably did fall a lot. Maybe he felt it added some immediacy and sexual frisson to the work, the way Dr. Pozzi’s hand untying his robe did. Maybe he just felt it expressed the character of his subject, who had been trying his patience for the last several months. Neither Amélie nor her mother objected to it – by the time of the Paris Salon, both saw the portrait as a stunning likeness, guaranteed to make her the most celebrated beauty in Paris.
The Paris Salon was the Cannes film festival of its day – everyone went, if only to see each other instead of the art. And as Sargent had secured a prominent place for his painting, everyone would see the painting of Madame Gautreau. And they did, only the reaction was not what Sargent, the Madame, or her mother had hoped for.
The close cut of Madame Gautreau’s dress revealed that she was not wearing proper corsetry – Sargent had basically painted her without any underwear on. And the fallen strap – one observer noted that with “one sneeze she’ll be free!” While there were plenty of nudes to ogle in the Paris Salon, they were historical or allegorical figures, free from any connection to the flesh and blood world. This was a real live woman – one known to most Parisiennes – and she was, by all appearances, one wiggle away from being completely naked. It was a scandalously erotic portrait, and even though many women in Parisian society were promiscuous, to portray an actual society woman that way – in public – was unthinkable.
The painting was immediately declared a scandal, and both Madame Gautreau and her mother quickly revised their opinions of it. Sargent wanted to withdraw the painting, but the Salon wouldn’t hear of it. And the press had a field day – publishing caricatures of the painting and of Mme. Gautreau. Other artists loved it, but they weren’t the ones who would pay the bills – after the Salon, Sargent had a falling out with Amélie’s mother, who accused him of trying to destroy her daughter. He kept the painting at his studio, having repainted the strap in its proper place. By the time he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, he changed its name to Madame X, denying Madame Gautreau of the fame she so craved.
The scandal had other effects on both the artist and his subject. Sargent’s promising career in Paris was over, so he fled to England, where more sympathetic friends sheltered and hired him. His career recovered. But Madame Gautreau had a harder time of it – after all, reputation was everything in society, and hers was ruined. She did find more artists to paint portraits of her, and as her star descended she even had another done with a fallen strap, to capitalize on her infamy. But as her beauty faded, she became an object of ridicule, and she slowly withdrew from society.
But the portrait remains, and the talent of its painter, along with the strange beauty and haughtiness of its subject, continue to fascinate us. With the rise of flash photography and the paparazzi, celebrity scandals flare a lot more often. But I don’t think we’ll ever look at a photo of, say, Paris Hilton without underwear, and think “Wow, people looked so much more stylish and classy then”. But maybe that’s because of the medium – a well thought out portrait that slyly alludes to a shady character is so much more interesting than a moment of extreme tackiness caught on film.
And maybe that’s what speaks to us: Madame Amélie Gautreau was a flawed character, as we all are. But in contrast to our own unflattering photo moments, her exposure by Sargent immortalized her as a far more interesting person than she probably was – a seductive and, in our 21st century eyes, dangerously elegant figure.
Strapless by Deborah Davis.
John Singer Sargent, His Portrait by Stanley Olson.