John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 to expatriate American parents and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and in the studio of the preeminent portraitist in France, Charles Carolus-Duran. He practiced as a modestly successful portrait painter in Paris until this particular work caused such controversy that he determined to resettle in London where he soon became the leading portraitist in the British capital.
Virginie Amelie Avegno was born in New Orleans but married Pierre Gautreau, a French banker and became a celebrated beauty in the Parisian haute-monde, her legendary complexion being maintained by the covert application of copious amounts of rice powder.
Sargent probably met Mme Gautreau in 1881 and, obviously impressed, asked if he could paint her. After a number of preliminary studies, a full size sketch was completed before work on the portrait began. This went slowly with Sargent, who usually painted with some alacrity, constantly reworking the canvas. At one point he wrote to his friend Vernon Lee that he was ‘struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.’ So it was not until 1884 that the portrait was unveiled at the Salon entitled Portrait of Mme … .
The pose is striking and unconventional; her head is turned somewhat awkwardly in profile, emphasising a nose which perhaps some sitters would have preferred to remain as a rather less prominent feature; her torso is aligned more frontally. Her right arm twists round to enable her hand to grasp the edge of an occasional table – again there is a degree of awkwardness – her thumb seems to be buckling under pressure from the weight of the right side of her body. She wears a black satin dress which accentuates her hour-glass waist as well as the considerable dimensions of her charms above it. The dress also features an unusually revealing décolletage leaving large expanses of flesh exposed to the gaze. Sargent has imparted a curious lavender cast to all this flesh but this was not some fanciful invention of the painter – rather it seems to have been the product of the sitter’s idiosyncratic skin care regimen.
The picture was unveiled at the 1884 Salon to almost universal hostility. The critics were offended by what they saw as the provocative stance of the sitter and the indecently low cut of the bodice as well as alighting on the rather odd flesh tone. Sargent’s decision to show one of the spangled straps as if it had just fallen off the right shoulder played into the hands of those who saw the painting as a lascivious affront. He obviously regretted this ‘provocation’ as he immediately overpainted the offending detail, in favour of a strap that was firmly in place on the shoulder, as soon as he recovered the painting from the walls of the Salon.
It is probable that Sargent had set out to create a sensation (the matter of the loose shoulder strap seems to confirm this) but the fervour of the outrage which greeted this painting surprised and shocked him. His reputation, which had been on the rise during his years in Paris was now in tatters. However, Sargent would later find fame in London and America. Mme X was not so lucky: the scandal destroyed her reputation and she was forced to withdraw from polite society.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1884 James A. M. Whistler: Milly Finch, Washington, Freer Gallery of Art
1884 Alfred Sisley: Riverbank in Saint-Mammés, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage